This is the first full life of the art dealer and patron Hugh Lane since the rather adoring 1920 biography by his aunt Lady Gregory. Robert O’Byrne makes use of the vast quantities of archival material that have come to light in recent decades to construct a detailed, nuanced portrait of a fascinating and enigmatic figure whose name still resonates in Irish cultural history.
Born in Cork in 1875 (he was a descendant of a former lord mayor of the city), Hugh Lane had an unsettled childhood marked by much moving around and little education. At the age of eighteen, penniless, he made his way to London and apprenticed himself to an art dealer. Thanks to an unusually discerning eye for quality and unflagging energy and ambition, he quickly opened his own gallery and became one of the leading dealers in London. His expertise and interests were unusually wide-ranging; as a dealer he specialized in old masters, but he collected Impressionists and other contemporary artists and had an almost messianic drive to create public collections. This he did in South Africa, where he was responsible for the establishment of important public galleries in Cape Town and Johannesburg; and, most famously, in Ireland, where his Municipal Gallery and his contested bequest of Impressionist pictures made him a figure of affection and controversy through much of his adult life and decades after his premature death on the Lusitania in 1915.
Hugh Lane was in many ways a very solitary figure – he never married and, though rumoured to have been homosexual, never had a documented relationship with a man – but he was also a man of great social energy who befriended and sometimes crossed swords with the leading cultural figures of the day: Yeats, Gregory, Orpen, Augustus John, Rodin, Beerbohm, and many others. Robert O’Byrne writes with great clarity and insight about a man who has always been something of a mystery, and the breadth of whose achievements has hitherto never been fully reckoned.
ROBERT O’BYRNE writes on the arts and culture for The Irish Times. He is the author of After a Fashion, a history of the fashion industry in Ireland.
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