On 12 April 1956 two Dublin students, Paul Hogan and Bill Fogarty, walked into the Tate Gallery in London and stole an old master, Jour d’Êté (Summer’s Day) by the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. The fact that Hogan arranged to have himself photographed with the painting as he walked out of the Tate suggested this was no ordinary theft. It was not undertaken for profit, neither was it a student prank. Hogan and Fogarty were incensed at the very presence of the Morisot and thirty-eight other paintings in London. As far as they were concerned the entire collection of priceless impressionist pictures should be in a gallery in Dublin, because that was what their owner had ordained in his will, more than forty years before.
The owner was the collector and dealer Hugh Percy Lane. Born in Cork in 1875 he was the nephew of the playwright and joint founder of the Abbey Theatre, Lady Gregory. He originally worked in art restoration before starting to buy and sell paintings himself. He soon had his own commercial art gallery in Dublin, opened in 1908. The following year he was knighted for his servcies to art at the tender age of thirty-three. Through frequent visits to Aunty Augusta’s home in Coole, he also became acquainted with most of the leaders of the so-called ‘Irish Renaissance’. These included the poet W.B.Yeats, who made a veiled reference to Lane in his poem, ‘The Fisherman’ in the line ‘great art beaten down’ – a reference to the long dispute over the building of a home for the connoisseur’s collection.
Lane was like one of those people who bought shares in Apple … in 1977. He developed a taste for impressionists—not of the Oliver Callan type. These were artists whose work had originally been compared to wallpaper, to the detriment of their paintings. Land had rapidly acquired a personal collection which included works by Degas, Manet and Renoir. Just as no one knew that the dream of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would turn into a multi-billion dollar corporation within two decades, the impressionists in the early 1900s were still something of an acquired taste, one which might quickly give way to the ‘next big thing’, causing artists like Renoir and Monet be completely forgotten, and leaving Lane with a few dozen mediocre canvasses albeit with really nice frames. But that’s not how it turned out.
Lane wanted to leave his collection to the city of Dublin, but the reluctance of the City Fathers to spend any money on a building to house his increasingly valuable paintings, caused him to change his mind. Instead he decided that London was more deserving and the whole lot was bequeathed to the National Gallery there. At some point, however, he appears to have changed his mind again. He drew up a codicil to his will which meant that, in the event of his death, the collection would, after all, be left to Dublin. He then set off, in 1915, on a long sea journey without having the codicil witnessed.
Lane returned to the county of his birth in May 1915, but only as one of the twelve hundred fatalities on board the ill-fated RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale by a German U-Boat. On his death the National Gallery in London claimed his pictures. When the codicil came to light they chose to ignore the obvious implication of the document, on the basis that, as Lane had not had the codicil witnessed, it was invalid. Possession was nine tenths of the law, and they had both possession and the law on their side.
And that is how the matter stood until the intervention of Paul Hogan and Bill Fogarty. The two novice, but highly efficient, art thieves held on to their Morisot for four days before getting some friends to hand it in to the Irish Embassy. They had achieved their objective by drawing attention to the injustice of the entire collection residing in London, contrary to the expressed (but unwitnessed) desire of their owner. Three years later a compromise arrangement was reached between London and Dublin, which allowed the collection to be split. This arrangement was changed in 1993 and the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin now has permanent possession of thirty-one of the thirty-nine paintings.
Hugh Lane—‘Bequest’ is not actually part of his name—was born one hundred and forty-three years ago, on this day.