Ireland pressures Britain to return pictures in Easter Rising anniversary year
Pressure is mounting on Britain to return a priceless trove of impressionist paintings to Ireland as the Easter Rising centenary celebrations get under way.
In a resurgence of a 100-year-old row, once a nationalist cause celebre, city leaders in Dublin will consider formally demanding the hand-over of 39 world-famous works by the likes of Renoir, Monet and Manet.
The collection was originally left to London’s National Gallery by Cork-born art collector Sir Hugh Lane, who died on board the Lusitania when it was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915 off the coast of Ireland.
It was later discovered he wrote a codicil, or amendment, to his will stating he had changed his mind about the paintings going to London and instead bequeathed them to Dublin.
The amendment was signed but not witnessed and despite a top-level government intervention in 1929 the National Gallery retained legal ownership.
Controversy raged for decades afterwards and Irish nationalists WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, Lane’s aunt, were among famous names who campaigned for Lane’s final wishes to be honoured.
Despite eventual agreements in 1979 and 1993, loaning much of the collection to Dublin’s civic modern art gallery – named The Hugh Lane – city representatives are considering a fresh offensive to have the collection officially returned.
Next week, Dublin City Council will debate a motion tabled by Fianna Fail councillor Jim O’Callaghan to return “the collection of impressionist paintings bequeathed to Dublin by Sir Hugh Lane but which continue to be retained in London”.
Mr O’Callaghan said he was confident the motion will be passed and urged the National Gallery “to recognise that the moral right to these paintings rests in Dublin”.
“I think it is important that the political representatives of the city of Dublin indicate that they believe the paintings should be returned to their rightful home,” he said.
“Once the current agreement is up I think the fairest arrangement would be for the paintings to be returned to their proper home.”
Mr O’Callaghan added: “2016 would be a good year for authorities to return these items back to Dublin.”
The move comes ahead of an imminent general election but also amid the opening salvoes in a year of disputed celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, which eventually led to Irish independence.
The National Gallery refused to respond to questions about the future of the Hugh Lane collection after the existing agreement expires in 2019, or whether there were any talks about alternative arrangements.
A spokeswoman said “an amicable agreement” has been in place for many years and remains “valid” for another three years.
Under the 1979 deal, the works were divided into two groups with 30 pictures placed on loan to the Hugh Lane in Dublin and eight pictures remaining in London.
In 1993, the eight paintings in London were divided into two groups which were shown alternately in Dublin and London for six years at a time.
They include Renoir’s The Umbrellas, Manet’s Eva Gonzales, Degas’s Beach Scene and Monet’s Lavacourt Under Snow.
Last year, National Gallery director Nicholas Penny publicly acknowledged “Dublin has some moral claim” to the collection.
The remarks were welcomed at the time by The Hugh Lane gallery as “the clearest public acknowledgement of Dublin’s right to these paintings”.