Two Portraits of Sir Hugh Lane (1875-1915) by Sarah Cecilia Harrison (1863-1941).
Hannah Baker, Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar.
Art dealer and philanthropist, Sir Hugh Lane, depicted here in two portraits by his close friend, Sarah Cecilia Harrison, is a well-known figure in Irish history. Harrison, on the other hand, has long remained a footnote in the narrative, despite the substantial contribution she made within Dublin’s artistic and political domains. Harrison’s role in the establishment of the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (now Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane), and her appointment in 1912 as the first female city councillor for Dublin are two major achievements certainly deserved of commendation. However, this short blog will act as an introduction to her often-neglected portrait painting practice.
Harrison and Lane formed their friendship during the ten years in which they worked together to establish the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. Harrison began Lane’s first portrait (fig.1) in 1906, whereas the second was painted posthumously (fig.2) after Lane’s tragic death on the Lusitania in 1915.
In her portraiture practice, Harrison used a limited palette and a meticulous linear method of painting requiring exactitude of draughtsmanship and modelled skin tones in a smooth, luminescent and scrupulous manner. She rarely indulged in the expression of fashionable dress or paraphernalia and her backgrounds are often simple and unembellished, typified by a subtly modulated monochrome so as not to distract the viewer’s eye from her primary focus, namely, the psychology of the sitter. Her depictions of Lane are typical of her technique and these facets of her work led contemporaneous critics to compare Harrison with the sixteenth century artist, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543).
There was a distinct absence of haste in Harrison’s portrait painting technique and, according to family sources, so it is unsurprising to learn that Lane sat to Harrison on at least fifteen occasions for the 1906 portrait. This demand on his time did not suit the restless Lane, who eventually insisted upon her finishing the work from a photograph. Harrison used the 1906 portrait as a template for the posthumous painting. She altered little of the composition; a change of clothing, alternate hand gestures and the addition of a beard being the salient differences. The subsequent portrait is also larger in size than the first and Lane’s skin tones have a redder hue, which echo that of Harrison’s later portraits. After Lane’s death, the famous controversy surrounding his will, which decreed that England’s National Gallery receive Lane’s Continental pictures, meant that Lane’s reputation had suffered, and his friend wished to acknowledge and preserve his bequest. Harrison, like many of his friends, did not want his contribution to Dublin’s cultural life to have been in vain. In his posthumous portrait, she added a Forget-Me-Not flower to the lapel as a simple gesture of reminiscence but may have served the dual purpose of recalling the great efforts and sacrifices Lane made on behalf of Dublin. Today Lane is celebrated and remembered as Harrison desired, and the presence of these two intimate portraits in public collections help to reify his legacy.