The Dublin Gallery on the River

A ‘most beautiful and remarkable building’ - thus, in 1913, Hugh Lane, Irishman and art collector described his proposed new art gallery for Dublin. Lane’s plan, drawn up by his celebrated architect friend, Edwin Lutyens, was for two pavilions, each in itself a major gallery to be crowned with suitable statuary. They would stand apart, on either side of the River Liffey with an elliptical arch stone bridge, surmounting a minor gallery, connecting them.

Yeats wrote of it, ‘I have seen the Lutyen design - beautiful. Two buildings joined by a row of columns, it is meant to show the sunset through columns, there are to be statues on top.’ Seeing this wonderful adornment of the river would call to mind the Uffizi Gallery and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Dublin would acquire an iconic symbol - and in Lane’s opinion would lose an eyesore. For the site chosen by Lane was that of the ‘ugly metal footbridge’ - the same one his friend Yeats did not deign to cross, objecting as he did to the half penny toll.

Lane’s plans never came to pass but did not falter through lack of enthusiasm on his part. Having overcome his disappointment on his gallery plan for St. Stephen’s Green - an oblong building with a recessed columned portico facing onto the gardens and approached by wide steps - his fervour was such that George V and President Roosevelt were happy to subscribe funds. In readiness, he donated modern masters to the city, some unconditionally and others in expectation of the new gallery being built. A temporary Municipal Art Gallery opened in Harcourt Street in 1908 with late opening hours to encourage the working man. Although formally adopted by Dublin Corporation on March 28, 1913, Lane’s plan for The Dublin Gallery on the River, fell to a mixture of misplaced Nationalism and Victorian type parsimony.

Lutyens, the architect, was half Irish - but this did not compensate for him being half British. Dublin Corporation demanded an Irish architect be appointed. Businessmen, led by William Murphy, nemesis of Dublin’s working classes, objected to such use of taxpayers money as it might be better spent on housing for the poor. Others rowed in with, as they say in Dublin, their half pence worth: the humidity of the riverside location would destroy the canvases, sparks from a steamboat might cause a fire and in a remarkable pique of farsightedness, the gallery could never be extended.

An exasperated Lane despatched the collection to London and in October 1913 cemented this decision by bequeathing them so in his will. In February 1915 he added a codicil, fatefully unwitnessed, leaving half the collection to Dublin. In May 1915 Sir Hugh Lane went down with the ill fated Lusitania. Following much dispute, ownership of the paintings is, since 1959, shared between Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and the National Gallery London.

The Ha’penny Bridge, that ‘ugly, metal footbridge’ survived to be a very worthy icon of Dublin.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 27th August 2013