A Life in the Arts, A Death at Sea: Sir Hugh Lane (1875-1915)

Sir Hugh Lane was a true connoisseur of fine art, and his gift for recognizing artistic genius had brought him the admiration of the art world, as well as a vast fortune.  In the spring of 1915, Sir Hugh travelled to New York in hopes of finding support for a project that he believed would be the crowning achievement of the Irish Revival of art and culture.

In the twenty-plus years since he had begun his career as a trainee painting restorer for a London art dealer, Lane had established himself as a “gentleman art-dealer”.  He had become an expert on Impressionist paintings, and had been appointed a director of the National Gallery in London.

Lane’s career was based in London, but his heart was in Dublin.  He spent most of his time and fortune supporting fine art in the Irish capital by raising funds and donating works from his own private collection.  He called upon his influential circle of friends and relations – including his aunt Lady Gregory (founder of The Abbey Theatre), poet William Butler Yeats, Douglas Hyde (founder of the Gaelic League), political activist and playwright Edward Martyn, and Lane’s fiancĂ©e, the portraitist Sarah Cecilia Harrison – to aid him in this work.

Lane’s largest contribution to Irish arts came in 1908, when he donated over 300 paintings to the City of Dublin.  The collection, which was originally displayed in Clonmell House, on Harcourt Street, was described by the Paris newspaper Le Figaro as “an entire museum rich in beautiful works, a museum envied by the most prosperous states and the proudest cities.”  Lane was honored as a Freeman of the City, and knighted the following year.

This gift had been made on the condition that Dublin build a permanent museum of modern art that was worthy of holding the collection.  The plans for this new building ran into difficulties from the onset.  Lane had asked Sir Edwin Lutyens, whom many critics considered the greatest of all British architects, to design the museum.  The Dublin architectural community was outraged at the idea that such a prestigious building would be designed by a foreigner, and blocked the project at every turn.  An exasperated Lane would later write, “I hate the place, the people, and the Gallery.”

By 1915, little if any progress had been made on the new museum.  Lane hoped that a trip to New York would provide the opportunity to renew interest in the project.  The Americans did not support the project in the way that Lane wished, but he was able to sell two of his most important paintings – Man in the Red Cap by Titian and Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Thomas Cromwell - to the American art collector Henry Clay Frick.

Lane booked his return to Britain on the cruise liner RMS LusitaniaThe Lusitania and her sister-ship The Mauretania were the most luxurious ships of the era, and perhaps in history.  In addition to the ships’ opulence, they were the fastest on the seas, regularly setting ocean crossing speed records.

Britain and Germany were at war in Europe.  On April 22, 1915, the German embassy in Washington, D.C., had issued the following warning:

TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Washington, D.C. 22nd April 1915

Despite the fact that it was a time of war, and that the German warnings had been made public, few of the crew or passengers aboard The Lusitania feared for the safety of the ship.

On the eastward bound voyage Sir Hugh made a £10,000 contribution to the Red Cross war relief effort.  It would be the last of the 39-year-old’s many charitable acts.  In the early afternoon of the 7th of May, the German submarine U-20 fired a torpedo that hit The Lusitania starboard side right before the bridge.  There was a huge explosion, the ship stopped immediately, and keeled over to the starboard.  The Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes, taking 1,198 lives with her, hundreds of who were children. 

Sir Hugh Lane’s body was listed among the nearly a thousand which were never recovered.   Also lost on that day were the paintings by Monet, Rembrandt, Reubens and Titian that Lane had taken aboard with him. In 1994, diver Polly Tapson claimed to have located the container where these paintings were stored.  The paintings were being transported in lead tubes, and may have survived.  The Irish Arts Ministry has placed a Heritage Protection order on the wreckage, thus preventing recovery of these works of art.

Today the museum known as The Hugh Lane, in Dublin’s city center, houses one of Ireland’s foremost collections of modern and contemporary art.  It contains works ranging from the impressionist masterpieces of Manet, Monet, Renoir and Degas to works by leading contemporary artists. The Hugh Lane plays a pivotal role in Ireland’s cultural life and has gained worldwide acclaim, both for itself and the city.

Adam Lowe Martin (son of) – Allen Lowe Martin – Margaret Persse (daughter of) – Edwin Theophilus Persse (son of) – Dudley Persse – Theophilus Persse – Henry Stratford Persse – William Persse (father of) – Robert Persse – Dudley Persse – Adelaide Persse (mother of) – Sir Hugh Lane