Who owns Hugh Lane's works?

May 27 2015

Image of Who owns Hugh Lane's works?

Picture: National Gallery

In 1915, when the celebrated Irish collector Sir Hugh Lane was killed on the Lusitania, the National Gallery in London inherited 39 first class paintings, among them Manet's Music in the Tuileries Gardens (above). Lane had initially bequeathed the pictures to the National Gallery, but then changed his mind and made a codicil to his will stating that he wished the pictures to go to the new municipal gallery in Dublin. But the codicil was unwitnessed, and so had no legal effect. Two galleries in Dublin  and London have been in dispute about the pictures ever since, but have come up with a pragmatic sharing agreement (for more details on which, see here).

In comments reported yesterday by the Guardian yesterday, the National Gallery's director, Nicholas Penny, said:

“The National Gallery claims legal ownership of the paintings bequeathed by Sir Hugh Lane, but has long conceded that Dublin has some moral claim to them,” he said.

Penny added that it was a difficult but important topic because “there are so many cultural institutions which should, even if they don’t, acknowledge that some other institution or some other country, has some sort of moral claim on the works of art in their possession.”

He went on: “To have reached a compromise of the kind we have is something that I’m very pleased that we can advertise. We must always welcome people who feel we haven’t gone far enough in the type of acknowledgement we have made.”

The comments have been welcomed by those who campaign to have the paintings' ownership transferred to Ireland. But they don't in fact go any further than the National Gallery in London's existing position. So, as you were.

But I have to say I wasn't aware of this history; the moral case is very strong indeed.

Update - Neil Jeffares alerts us to W. B. Yeats' letter to the Spectator in 1916 on the whole issue. It seems beyond all doubt that Lane intended the collection to go to Dublin.

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