Hugh Lane “inherited instability” in his home life. He never had a formal education, leaving his native Cork for London, where he spent his formative years as an art apprentice. By his early 20s, he was “practically a millionaire”. How did he do it? Citizen Lane, a new docu-drama that charts the life of the founder of Dublin’s Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, aims to give viewers an insight into how Hugh, a nephew of Lady Gregory, became a celebrity in his own right.
Writer of Citizen Lane, Mark O’Halloran and Director of the Hugh Lane Gallery, Barbara Dawson, joined Sean O’Rourke on the Today programme. Mark explained that despite the fact that Hugh had a limited education, he seemed to understand art and its value.
“He just had an instinctual way of reading paintings. He knew what quality was when he saw it.”
This understanding allowed Hugh to invest in some pieces at a young age and reap the rewards.
“By his early 20s, he was practically a millionaire…He was a celebrity art dealer before there were celebrity art dealers.”
Success and the money that came with it prompted Hugh to consider a return to Ireland, Barbara says.
“He was doing very well so he decided, let’s have a bit of a social life”.
It was a good time to come back. The Celtic Revival was gaining momentum and Hugh was well-placed in the surrounds of Coole Park to make an impact.
“It was there that the ignition for the idea of a gallery of modern art began. It was in 1901.”
Hugh was not shy about his ambition, Mark says, recalling his words to novelist George Moore.
“He said, ‘I’ve come to revive the art of painting in Ireland’. And George Moore said, ‘The art of painting never existed in Ireland’. And he said, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to revive it anyway’.”
Mark told Sean that Hugh was not immediately well-received by everyone.
“William Butler Yeats disliked him the moment he met him because he felt that there was something of the commercial classes about him. He valued by price and I think that W. B. Yeats found that to be vulgar. But they quickly changed their minds.”
One way Hugh succeeded in changing minds was his belief that art should be more accessible.
“He went about organising huge exhibitions that changed the way Irish people saw art...It would be free for everybody to come and see. And that was a new idea that radically changed how Irish people were going to engage with art.”
Citizen Lane airs tomorrow night at 9.35pm on RTÉ 1. Listen back to Today with Sean O’Rourke here
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