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Speech by Sabina opening the “More Power To You – Sarah Purser: A Force for Irish Art” Exhibition

Hugh Lane Gallery, Charlemont House, Tuesday, 9th of July 2024

Good evening friends and esteemed guests.

It is a great pleasure to be with you this evening as we gather here at the Hugh Lane Gallery to celebrate the enduring life and legacy of Sarah Purser.

This exhibition, More Power To You – Sarah Purser: A Force for Irish Art, is not just a celebration of her remarkable achievements as an artist, but is also a testament to her indomitable spirit as an activist, an advocate and a vigorous campaigner for the visual arts in Ireland.

First I would like to extend my thanks to Dr. Barbara Dawson, the Director of the Hugh Lane Gallery, for extending this invitation to me, and to all those involved in making today’s event possible.

By committing to highlighting and showcasing the richness of Irish art and culture through particular exhibitions at institutions such as the Hugh Lane Gallery, we can continue to preserve and promote the invaluable contributions of artists like Sarah Purser.

Born in 1848 she studied art in Ireland, France, and returned to Ireland in 1879. She was already exhibiting her work and was highly knowledgable on French & English Painting. She kept abreast of trends in Paris by annual visits.

On returning to Ireland in 1879, Sarah found herself at a pivotal time in Irish history, standing at the edge of a period marked by profound social and cultural change, on the cusp of a renaissance in art, literature, and national identity.

It was a time however when societal norms constrained the ambitions of many women. Strong minded, intelligent and imaginative, with a talent for friendship and bringing people together, she forged her own path to become the most successful Irish portraitist of the day, overcoming the many restrictions placed on women of her time, to play a pivotal role in the development of modern Irish art. Through her talent, her energy, her initiatives and her brilliance in short her personality, she became a major figure in the cultural revival.

Her talent as portraitist garnered much attention and support. Lady Georgina Gore-Booth of Lissadell House was so impressed by her paintings that she commissioned a portrait of her daughters, Constance – later Countess Markievicz – and Eva. In turn, that portrait prompted a host of new commissions, in Ireland, England & Scotland, a patronage which not only enabled her to establish herself as an exceptional artist but also to forge lasting friendships and connections that would shape her career and activism.

She captured the essence of many of Ireland's most influential figures during this transformative era. Portraits of many notable figures in Irish society such as Douglas Hyde, John Butler Yeates, WB Yeates and Roger Casement amoung others cemented her role as a vital figure in Ireland’s cultural landscape.

Her success was exceptional. Between 1887 and 1890, she had more portraits exhibited in the prestigious halls of the Royal Hibernian Academy than any other artist, a significant accomplishment for any painter, but all the more noteworthy for a woman in a then male-dominated environment.

At a time where many meeting places, clubs for discussion of arts & politics were for men only, she made herself central to the social & cultural life  and advocated for the Arts through her second Tuesday meetings where new ideas in arts & politics were discussed, the meetings were open to men and women. Her studios on Mespil Road and Harcourt Terrace were also open for meetings and discussion. Through these and through her involvement with the Contemporary Club she came in contact with radical thinkers and activists.
There she became a close friend of Maud Gonne who brought her in touch with the Irish suffrage movement and to the feminist impulse decisively affecting many of Purser’s generation  advocating not only for artistic expression but also for the empowerment of women in society. Maud Gonne was the subject of a number of her paintings including, The New Pet, showing at this exhibition brought from it’s home in Áras an Uahtaráin.

In reaction to the imported mass production of Church Art she established An Túr Gloine which trained Irish artists in the craft stained glass and was responsible for the resurgence of that art medium in Ireland, running an Túr Gloine from 1903 until her retirement in 1940.

2024 is indeed an important centenary which celebrates Sarah Purser’s accomplishments.  In 1924, she broke barriers by becoming the first female member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, paving the way for future generations of female artists.

Also in 1924, she spearheaded the establishment of the Friends of the National Collection of Ireland, a visionary initiative aimed at preserving Ireland's artistic heritage by securing works of art and artefacts of artistic and historic importance for the purpose of exhibiting them in public galleries across the island of Ireland.

And of course, Sarah Purser was also influential in the founding of Hugh Lane Gallery. It was Purser who suggested persuading the Irish government in 1928 that Charlemont House should become the long-awaited home for modern paintings that her late friend Hugh Lane wanted to give to Dublin. Five years later it opened here in 1933 where it has been housed since.

Sarah Purser was an energetic advocate for the visual arts in Ireland throughout her life. Her hard work brought her recognition, security, and money, which she wanted to use to promote and advance Irish art – a generosity displayed to present and future generations of Irish artists.

Reflecting on Sarah Purser's life and achievements, we are reminded not only of her artistic brilliance but also of her dedication to advancing the cultural landscape of Ireland. 

She was a visionary who saw the potential for art to not only reflect but also to shape society, dedicating her life to ensuring that Ireland's artistic heritage would be preserved and celebrated.

We celebrate her as a trailblazer.

I am proud and privileged to declare “More Power to You” -  Sarah Purser : A Force for Irish Art” open

Thank you.