The late 19th century and early 20th century were a good time to be an art dealer in Great Britain.
If you’ve ever watched Downton Abbey, you know that the British economy was going through structural changes that hit the landed aristocracy hard. As a result, they were selling off anything that could bring in cash. For centuries these rich toffs had been plundering or purchasing the finest art Europe had to offer. Now their manor houses were being emptied of priceless masterpieces so little Lord Supplebottom could keep current on his dues to the Drones Club.
That is, of course, assuming Lord Supplebottom knew the value of what he had in the first place. Many aristocrats had no real knowledge about the provenance or value of the works hanging over their fireplaces. That left openings for crafty and unscrupulous dealers to make a pretty pence.
No one was better at playing that game than Hugh Percy Lane. A child of the Anglo-Irish gentry, he’d been introduced to the international art market by his Aunt Augusta and had taken to it like a fish to water. Lane had a real eye for spotting overlooked works of the Old Masters in dusty manor houses, snapping them up for a song and then re-selling them to rich industrialists and American millionaires for vastly increased prices.
His tenets were simple: buy low, sell high, and keep your cards close to your vest. Within a few years, they’d made him a wealthy man and one of the most influential art dealers in London, with a lovely private collection of classical and modern paintings.
Once he had made his patch, Hugh Lane began turning his attention to, well, posterity.
Here again he was influenced by his dear “Aunt Augusta” — who, by the way, also happened to be Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, the grand dame of Irish literature. Inspired by her patriotic example, he decided he would improve the culture of the visual arts in Ireland. Which frankly, needed improvements. The 19th century had left Ireland both financially and culturally impoverished, as any Irish artist with a glimmer of talent fled Dublin for more enlightened shores.
Lane’s goal was as presumptuous as it was patriotic. He had no real connections to Irish high society, save for those he had made through his aunt. And they were mostly poets and playwrights, not the sort of folks who could write cheques and make things happen.
So his first efforts were directed towards improving the chronically underfunded Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin. It had been around for almost eighty years without having any measurable effect on Ireland’s cultural life, and desperately needed infusions of new blood and cold hard cash. Lane’s assistance might just be what the Academy needed to break out of its funk.
In 1902, he used the Academy’s galleries to stage a show of Old Masters on loan from Irish country houses. It was enormously popular, drawing huge audiences, bringing in much-needed money for the Academy, and winning numerous accolades for Lane, including a coveted appointment to the board of the National Galley of Ireland. It also won him a few enemies, mostly senior Academicians who felt Lane’s successes reflected poorly on their own failures.
In 1904, Lane aimed his sights a lot higher. A magnificent collection of art assembled by the late Scottish entrepreneur James Staats Forbes was coming on to the market, pictures that would make an excellent addition to the National Gallery of Ireland’s collection. Alas, the National Gallery lacked the funds to purchase them outright, but Lane had a workaround for that. He arranged an exhibit of the paintings at Royal Hibernian Academy, and encouraged patriotic Irishmen to buy them and donate them to the National Gallery.
It was a bold idea, and also a very dumb one. The patrons he was counting on had no money to spend on civic pride. (Hell, they could barely afford to hold on to their own paintings, which they had been selling to Lane.) An embittered Lane accused the Academy of sabotaging him out of jealousy, and the Academicians responded by calling Lane an upstart more interested in personal glory than substantive progress in the arts.
Lane took that criticism very personally. He decided that if Dublin’s pre-eminent gallery had rejected him, well, he would create a new gallery of his own.
In January 1906, Hugh Lane announced he would donate his personal collection of modern French art to the city of Dublin. It was a significant gift including some thirty nine pictures by artists including Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His intention was to create a sort of feeder system for art, one that would display modern work by up-and-coming artists, with the worthiest pieces eventually passing on to the National Gallery of Ireland.
There was only one condition on the gift: within two months a “suitable gallery” had to be acquired to house the collection, or the deal was off.
Lane expected the announcement to be greeted with cheers. It was not.
The arts weren’t just a huge priority for the Dublin Corporation. The city’s treasury was not exactly overflowing, and the Corporation felt that what money they did have would be better spent on infrastructure improvements, public health initiatives, and battling unemployment and homelessness.
Even so, the Corporation wasn’t stupid, and they weren’t about to let such a generous gift slip through their fingers. They did push back on Lane’s absurdly unreasonable deadline — seriously, when has a municipal government ever been able to start and complete a project in two months? Lane reluctantly conceded the point, and extended his deadline.
The Corporation began by empowering the Estates and Finance Committee to set aside £500 for the creation of a temporary gallery. They spent a few months looking for a suitable site for the Municipal Gallery, only to realize that the Public Libraries Committee actually had jurisdiction over such matters. The process had to start over again from scratch, and Lane had to extend his deadline again. And again, and again, as the Public Libraries Committee slow-walked the process of finding a building for a collection of art they didn’t really want but felt honor-bond to accept.
It took almost two years, but by December 1907 the Corporation finally decided on a location on Harcourt Street, Clonmell House. It was far from “suitable” — it was a former residence in poor repair, with inadequate lighting and terrible exhibition spaces. But it was something. And it showed they were trying. That was all it took to satisfy Lane.
The Municipal Gallery of Dublin opened to great acclaim on January 20, 1908. And then four days later, the Public Libraries Committee announced that they had run out of money for the year. All of their non-essential employees were furloughed and all of of their facilities had to be shuttered until the new fiscal year started in March.
Also, around this time Dublin Corporation discovered that they didn’t actually have the legal authority to acquire the gallery property or spend the money to maintain it. They’d have to go and ask the British Parliament to amend their charter.
At this point Lane was so furious he seriously considered abandoning the Municipal Gallery project. Fortunately, his friends managed to talk him down. Lane continued to pay the gallery’s operational costs out of pocket, trusting that the situation would resolve itself soon enough.
Four and a Half Years Later…
“Soon enough” turned out to be four and a half years. It turns out the British Parliament wasn’t in any particular rush to improve the state of the arts in Ireland. Go figure. But they did eventually get off their butts and by July 1912 Dublin Corporation had all the legal niceties worked out and were ready to find a suitable home for the gallery.
But was Hugh Percy Lane?
Four years down the line, he was a very different person. First, in 1909 he had been knighted for his “services to art” so he was now Sir Hugh Percy Lane. He’d also soured on modern art as it moved from relatively safe schools like Impressionism and Post-Impressionism towards more avant-garde schools like Cubism. And he had grown very impatient with all of the delays on the Municipal Gallery project. For some reason, he laid most of the blame for the delays on Dublin Corporation instead of Parliament.
In the intervening years he had commissioned letters from his friends chastising Dublin for the inadequacy of the current gallery. Sounds harmless, until you realize those friends included W. Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, and William Butler Yeats. Maugham’s letter, in particular, was both witty and cutting:
We are generally assured that those pleasure are most enjoyed which are attained with most difficulty, and I can think of no other reason why the fact that Dublin possesses a Municipal Art Gallery of unrivaled excellence should be kept from the public like a discreditable secret.
Once the Corporation was free to act, Sir Hugh started ratcheting up the pressure. He made it very clear that he expected his “suitable gallery” to be erected very, very soon. He had just the spot in mind, right in the middle of St. Stephen’s Green, near a statue of Lord Ardilaun.
Of course, that didn’t sit well with Lord Ardilaun, who had been responsible for the recent renovations to St. Stephen’s Green. He was not keen about the idea of ruining his meticulously planned park by plopping a new building in the middle of it, and certainly not one right by his statue. I believe his exact words were, “Are you mad? I will not have myself stand sentry to a picture palace like some giddy huckster.” So, yeah, St. Stephen’s Green was out.
Sir Hugh was rapidly running out of patience. In November 1912 he sent an ultimatum to Dublin, threatening to remove his bequest by January if they hadn’t made any progress with the gallery plan. This time, the people of Dublin rose to the occasion by raising 1/3 of the necessary funds through a subscription drive. The mere suggestion of effort mollified Sir Hugh, and he seemed to back down.
The Corporation considered dozens of potential facilities, all of which Sir Hugh rejected as horribly inadequate. Sir Hugh proposed dozens of potential sites, all of which the Corporation rejected as exorbitantly expensive. Eventually both parties agreed on a a new bridge gallery spanning the River Liffey, but that was just a prelude to a new round of arguments: Dublin wanted an Irish architect, Sir Hugh an English one. The project ground to a halt.
Soon, Sir Hugh soured on Ireland completely:
I am too ill to do anything more for this horrible country where one can only collect advice. There is not a soul in Dublin with any organising ability.
On August 1, 1913 Sir Hugh declared that the conditions of his gift had not been met, removed the pictures from the Municipal Gallery. Soon after he re-gifted them to the Tate Gallery in London, who had been openly coveting them since 1907. There was only one condition: that they build a “suitable gallery” to house the bequest.
But in early 1915, Sir Hugh’s attitude changed yet again. He told his Irish friends that he felt unappreciated by the Tate. Many of his pictures weren’t even on display because the curators considered them second-rate, and their promise to build a new gallery to house the the bequest had come to nothing. With the benefit of hindsight, Dublin no longer seemed so bad.
Sir Hugh decided to change his will once again and bequeath the pictures to Dublin’s Municipal Gallery, but first he had some business to attend to in America. He’d take care of it after he got back.
There was only one problem with that: his return trip was booked on the RMS Lusitania.
On May 7th the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat.
Sir Hugh Percy Lane was not among the survivors.
After Lane’s death, the curators at the Tate took his bequest out of storage and staged a memorial show. It was the first time in years that all of the works had been on view, and it allowed critics to assess the collection with fresh eyes.
The first thing they noticed was that some of Lane’s attributions were… let’s say, “generous.” Quite a few of museum labels would later be revised to include “school of,” or “after,” or the damning “possibly by.”
The second things they noticed was that while Lane was a keen judge of Old Masters, his taste in contemporary art was… let’s say “faddish.” There was a solid core of eight to twelve legitimate masterpieces, including works by Degas, Monet, and Renoir. But the rest of the collection was composed of minor works by lesser artists and flavors-of-the-month like Antoin-Louis Barye, Jean-Louis Forain, and Antonio Mancini.
They did have to concede that it was a nice collection. Small museums have been built around worse.
Sir Hugh’s Irish friends could only curse their terrible luck. If only he had changed his will before going on his trip, those magnificent pictures would now be hanging in the Municipal Gallery.
Then, while cleaning out her nephew’s desk at the National Gallery of Ireland, Lady Gregory found an unsealed envelope inside a drawer. Inside was a a handwritten codicil to Sir Hugh’s will, reversing his decision to leave the paintings to the Tate and giving them back to the Municipal Gallery of Dublin. Provided, of course, that a new building would be provided for them within five years.
There was just one problem: the codicil wasn’t witnessed, which meant it wasn’t legal.
Sir Hugh’s Irish friends rejoiced. Even if the codicil didn’t give Dublin a legal right to the pictures, it gave the city a moral right to the pictures. A Parliamentary commission assembled to debate the matter seemed to agree with them, though it noted breaking Sir Hugh’s existing will would open up a huge can of worms.
The Dublin Municipal Gallery filed a suit to claim ownership of the pictures, but in the end the British courts had to go with the letter of the law. The unwitnessed codicil wasn’t legal, and the pictures would stay in London.
(We should also remember this, bubbling just under the surface; at this point the Irish Revolution was in full swing, and the British weren’t really in a mood to give the Irish anything.)
The Tate had won in the courts of law, but the victory didn’t seem right. So the curators proposed a compromise: they would be happy to make a long-term lone of the Lane bequest to the Dublin Municipal Gallery, if the Municipal Gallery would acknowledge the Tate’s legal ownership of the paintings.
Dublin, though, wasn’t in a mood to accept the Tate’s charity. They demanded full ownership or nothing. Unfortunately the Tate’s bylaws don’t allow them to deaccession paintings, and the arguments went nowhere.
That, for years, was the status quo. The Irish would periodically agitate for the return of the Lane bequest, negotiations would start up, and then grind to a halt.
As the years went by and Anglo-Irish tensions increased, hearts hardened and the tone of the arguments became ever more heated. Even Lane’s friends fell out over national lines, with his Irish friends insisting that the paintings be returned to Dublin and his English friends insisting that Lane was playing some sort of game to see which city would give him the better deal.
Lady Gregory carried on the fight until the end of her life. She wrote a book, Hugh Lane’s Life and Achievement, With Some Account of the Dublin Galleries, which made a passionate plea for the return of the Lane bequest. She even leaned on Michael Collins to insist on the paintings’ return as a condition of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, to no avail.
The pictures were a point of contention in 1924, 1926, 1928, 1938, and 1954. Each time the same arguments were trotted out, the same solutions proposed, and the same difficulties encountered. The Irish were getting ever more furious in their demands, and the British, well, they were so over it. Consider this dismissive editorial:
It is possible to imagine, sometimes, reading over the Lane controversy, that England never did anything worse to Ireland than retain 39 pictures — the best of his great collection in the modern French field — which Sir Hugh Lane left in his will to the National Gallery in London.” (Manchester Guardian, November 25, 1954)
April 12, 1956
And that brings us to 1956.
That year twenty-five year old art student Paul Hogan stumbled across a copy of Lady Gregory’s Hugh Lane’s Life and Achievement in the library of the Dublin College of Art, and had his eyes opened.
Hogan was indignant that Ireland’s cultural heritage was being held captive in the heart of London by technicalities like “the law.” He was so mad he wouldn’t stop talking about the British “theft” of the paintings all day. Even when he was out having a pint with his mate Bill Fogarty later that night.
Well, as the two men stumbled home, they came up with a plan, and it was exactly the sort of plan you’d expect two drunk art students to come up with. They would just take the paintings back. Just walk into the Tate Gallery and snatch one of ’em right off the wall. For Ireland.
Amazingly, this plan didn’t disintegrate in the harsh light of day like most drunken follies.
After all, they had precedent on their side: Vincenzo Peruggia had used the exact same method to steal the Mona Lisa in 1911. Hogan and Fogarty had the added advantage that they didn’t really care whether they succeeded or not. The very attempt was the real point, an act of protest that would shock the body politic out of its gormless complacency and raise awareness of the Irish cause. Which, again, is a very art student way of thinking.
The two men them made their way to London, took a room at the Irish Club in Belgravia, and started phase one of their plan.
Hogan presented himself to the Tate’s curators with a letter of introduction forged on Dublin College of Art letterhead. The curators gave Hogan a permit to copy pictures, which essentially gave him the run of the building and an excuse to be lugging paintings around. Over the next few days he painted and watched.
It soon became clear that they were never going to be able to snatch one of the more famous works in the Lane bequest. So instead they set their sights on Berthe Morisot’s Jour d’Eté (1879), a pretty little park scene featuring two young ladies in a rowboat with swans in the background. At a relatively compact 18″×29″ it would be easy to carry. And as a bonus, there was a straight line from where the painting was hanging to the front door of the gallery.
They made their move on Thursday, April 12, 1956. Hogan and Fogarty boldly strolled into the Tate Gallery, lifted Jour d’Eté off the wall and sandwiched it between a few pieces of cardboard for protection. Hogan tucked the Morisot under his arm and, with a quick nod to Fogarty, strode out of the building and down the front stairs into a taxicab. No one lifted a finger to stop him.
Visitors were shocked. One of them, Dennis Fisk, pointed out the blank space on the wall to the nearest gallery attendant and asked what was going on. The attendant just shrugged and told him the painting had been taken away to be photographed, and would be returned later.
Hogan and Fogerty were also shocked. The whole plan was to get caught. There was no contingency for actually succeeding. They had their cabbie drive them in circles around Piccadilly Circus while they desperately tried to figure out their next move. Eventually, they remembered Mary, a pretty young thing Hogan had been chatting up the previous evening. They had the taxi drop them off at Mary’s flat and sweet-talked the young woman into hiding their illicit parcel under her bed.
At 11:00 AM, someone (probably Fogarty) phoned the Fleet Street offices of the Irish News Agency and issued a quick statement in the name of Rory O’Donnell-Kelly, secretary of the National Students’ Council of Ireland.
Today members of the Irish National Students Council removed from the Tate Gallery, London a painting which is the property of the City of Dublin. The authority for this action is the codicil to the will of Sir Hugh Lane dated February 1915, bequeathing the 39 treasures to the City of Dublin. This action has been taken in the Irish national interest and with the expressed approval not only of the majority of the Irish people but also with the approval of the liberal minded people of Great Britain. All former appeals to the honour of Britain, and in law, have met with failure. The Irish National Students Council demands that this collection be returned to Ireland.
The Irish News Agency was, well, confused. They had been given a heads-up that there would be some sort of demonstration in front at the Tate, and had even sent a photographer down to get a few pictures. Nothing had happened, so they figured it was a bad tip. Certainly there had been no news alerts about a theft. Still, no harm in checking, right? So they called Sir John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate, and asked him if the statement was true.
It was the first time anyone at the Tate had any inkling that something was wrong.
Scotland Yard was called immediately, and conducted a thorough search of the gallery. When it became clear that the Morisot was missing, they called in the big guns: Detective Chief Inspector Mike McGrath. McGrath had experience with this sort of political agitation, having previously investigated the 1950 removal of the Stone of Scone by four similarly-minded Scottish students.
This time, DCI McGrath had his work cut out for him. The Irish News Agency had gone back through their photographer’s camera roll and struck gold: a crystal-clear photo of Hogan bounding down the Tate steps with the painting under his arm. His picture was splashed on the front pages of papers all across the United Kingdom. It made him very easy to identify, especially since Hogan hadn’t bothered to use a fake name in his dealings with the gallery. Since, once again, had intended to be caught.
Of course, identifying the culprit created some new problems. Because Paul Hogan wasn’t just any art student. His father was Irish diplomat Sarsfield Hogan, a senior advisor to Fianna Fáil leader and once-and-future Taoiseach Éamon de Valera. This… was a whole new can of worms, and Scotland Yard needed to figure out how to proceed delicately.
As the nationwide manhunt started up, Hogan and Fogarty panicked. They called Mary and asked her to take the painting to the Irish Embassy in London. The Irish Ambassador promptly returned it to the Tate, who accepted it graciously and put it back on display.
This time they screwed it to the wall with brackets.
Hogan and Fogarty were now on the run, disguising themselves as priests and quickly making their way to Liverpool so they could catch a ferry back to Ireland.
Lucky for them, DCI McGrath was aware of their every move. McGrath had realized this situation was the Stone of Scone all over again. Arresting Hogan and Fogarty would just turn the young men into martyrs, raise the profile of their cause, draw attention to the inadequate security at the Tate and other London galleries, and possibly cause an international incident.
Better to let the two of them go.
Still, he would make sure they were punished.
McGrath rang the Hogans, and made it very clear the two boys were not escaping — Scotland Yard was letting them go. When Paul and Bill disembarked from the ferry, Mrs. Hogan was waiting for them. She gave the two lads a disappointed look and a simple command: “Get in the car.”
Hell hath no fury like mother.
In the aftermath of the daring crime, anything might have happened. It would not have surprised anyone if the Irish became more militant, and the British even more intractable and reactionary. Instead, cooler heads on both sides prevailed and declared “enough is enough.” Negotiations to split custody of the bequest began, for the first time in earnest.
In 1959 the National Gallery and the Municipal Gallery finalized an agreement to share the Hugh Lane bequest between them. The Municipal Gallery acknowledged the National Gallery’s legal claim to the works, and the National Gallery acknowledged the Municipal Gallery’s moral claim to the works. Some of the pictures — the masterpieces, of course — would stay right where they were, thank you very much. But the lesser works would be split into two lots, which would rotate between the two galleries every five years.
Perhaps not the most elegant custody arrangement, but they made it work. Over the years the agreement has been renewed and adjusted to meet the needs of the time (and the needs of insurance adjusters). Eventually many the lesser works were sent to Dublin on more-or-less permanent loan, and the pool of works being rotated between the galleries grew.
The most recent agreement was reached just this February (2021). Dublin now has long-term custody of 27 of the paintings, and London only two, and the remaining ten paintings rotate between the two galleries in groups of five.
The last time most of the works were exhibited together was in 2008, when 38 of the 39 were assembled in Dublin to celebrate the centenary of the Municipal Gallery’s founding. The present-day Hugh Lane Gallery may not be the magnificent building on St. Stephen’s Green that Sir Hugh dreamed of, but even he would have to admit that in the end, everything worked out just fine.
When Lane traveled to America, at least one of his friends tried to prevent him from booking return passage on the Lusitania. That friend was Mr. John Quinn. Quinn’s own death was the inciting incident in another tale about art and the law. Check out our Series 1 episode “The Brouhaha,” about the time when the concept of modern art itself went on trial in a US Customs Court.
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- O’Byrne, Robert. Hugh Lane, 1875-1915. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2000.
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- Milmo, Cahal. “‘We didn’t really think we’d get away with it’: The astonishing story of how two young Irish men completed an audacious £7m art heist.” The Independent, 22 May 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/we-didn-t-really-think-we-d-get-away-it-astonishing-story-how-two-young-irish-men-completed-audacious-ps7m-art-heist-10270354.html. Accessed 1/1/21.
- Lonergan, Aidan. “How two Irish students stole a priceless masterpiece from London’s Tate Gallery – and got away with it.” Irish Post, 6 Apr 1917. https://www.irishpost.com/life-style/two-irish-students-stole-priceless-masterpiece-londons-tate-gallery-got-away-117360 Accessed 1/1/21.
- Crowley, Sinéad. “Shared agreement reached for display of Hugh Lane’s collection.” Raidió Teilifís Éireann, 26 Feb 2021. https://www.rte.ie/news/ireland/2021/0226/1199496-hugh-lane-gallery/ Accessed 3/29/2021.
- “The Hugh Lane bequest.” National Gallery. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/about-us/history/collectors-and-benefactors/sir-hugh-lane Accessed 03/29/2021.