Citizen Lane – fascinating dramadoc about the Irish art collector
But director Thaddeus O’Sullivan turns what might have been an arid documentary into witty, elegant docu-fiction about Hugh Lane, a turn-of-the-century art dealer and philanthropist.
O’Sullivan uses talking heads and pageants to tell the rather remarkable story of Hugh Lane through the witty script of Mark O’Halloran. Lane was part of Ireland’s Anglo ancestry – not aristocratic, but landed and paid all the same. Born in County Cork in 1875 and educated in England, Lane reconnected at a young age with his Irish roots thanks to his aunt Lady Gregory. Like her and their great friend WB Yeats – “The crested Protestants” as rejected by some – played a central role in the defense of the arts in Ireland during the Celtic revival.
A dealer and collector, Lane was renowned for his ability to spot artists and upcoming movements, and was a champion of the French Impressionists. Professionally, he had an eye for a good deal (often selling a work at a high profit), while personally being quite frugal in his tastes, although very generous to his friends.
He was also generous with his art, establishing the Dublin Municipal Open Access Gallery of Modern Art in 1908 (now Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane), filling it with works he himself had purchased.
The film carefully weaves two stories; first the historical, with dramatic reconstructions painting a complete picture of an esthete who, while being a hideous snob, also believed that art transforms us all – “The contemplation of beauty is not a practice. vain ”- and who for years tried unsuccessfully to establish a National Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin.
The second element covers the long campaign to recover Lane’s bequest of 39 paintings – including works by Monet, Renoir and Manet – for Ireland, which now reside at the National Gallery in London because a codicil in his will no wasn’t seen before Lane. died on Lusitania in 1915. In these fascinating inserts are contributions from, among others, historian Roy Foster and Lane biographer Robert O’Byrne.
It’s a little-known story given the prominence it deserves in O’Sullivan’s charming film. It was made in 2018, but in the years since, its moral point has become more relevant; although legally the bequest is that of the National Gallery, some might consider it morally as that of Ireland. Now there are renewed calls for the return of looted art – whether in Greece or Benin – which is currently on display in other UK museums and galleries.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor looks stunning as Lane, while great support comes from Derbhla Crotty as Lady Gregory and Lesley Conroy as artist Sarah Cecilia Harrison. Michael Gambon provides a flashing cameo and you’ll miss him as Lord Ardilaun, an old dyspeptic tampon that bumped into Lane over his choice of site for the new gallery (a magnificent structure designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens that would have lasted la Liffey).
As you would expect from a film about a man who valued the transcendent power of art, Kate McCullough’s cinematography frames each shot as if it were a painting itself. And, as a sort of codicil of a story sparked by one of them, after the making of the film, a sharing deal was made on Lane’s legacy, meaning art lovers can see paintings in London and Dublin.