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The artist and the presidents

The latest Library Blog post highlights the works of artist Sarah Purser at Academy House.

The works of Sarah Purser have hung on the walls at Academy House for over one hundred years. Her portraits of past presidents of the Academy silently bear witness to the day to day goings-on of Academy business meetings, lectures, seminars, workshops and book launches. How often do we return their collective gaze as we pursue the business of the day?

Sarah Henrietta Purser was born on 22 March 1848 at Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) and was brought up in Dungarvan, County Waterford. Born into a middle class family, she was sent to Switzerland to be educated, returning to Ireland at the age of fifteen. By 1873 the Purser family business was in financial difficulty and Purser knew she would need to finance her own life, so she focused on becoming a professional artist. She studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and joined the Dublin Sketching Club. Purser was a competent artist and her works were exhibited. However, she knew she needed to hone her talents and improve her artistic skills to a professional standard. As in most professional fields, women artists did not have the opportunities of their male counterparts; there were few places women could study art to a higher level. The leading art society, the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), did exhibit works by women but they were excluded from full membership until 1924. As a result Purser looked further afield. In 1878 she borrowed £30 from her brothers and set off to Paris to attend the ‘ladies section’ of the Académie Julian. This turned out to be a good investment on behalf of the Purser brothers as Sarah went on to become one of the leading portrait artists of her generation, the first woman to be elected to the RHA, a champion and advocate of Irish art and through astute investments, very wealthy. Her family background enabled her to move in Irish society and be introduced to people who could further her career by commissioning works.

Purser had a long and successful career and left a lasting legacy on the Irish art world. This blog post does not attempt to examine her full career but instead focuses on the portraits by Sarah Purser that hang in Academy House. All of the portraits are oil on canvas. At some point before 1915 they were sent to a local restorer for cleaning and were damaged, resulting in their original colour and vibrancy being compromised.

Sir Samuel Ferguson, MRIA, 1810-86
Poet and antiquary
Academy President, 1882-86

Sir Samuel Ferguson, MRIA, 1810-86 ©RIA

This posthumous portrait was commissioned by the RIA Ferguson Memorial Committee and was presented on behalf of the subscribers in 1888. Purser was often commissioned to paint posthumous portraits, which she referred irreverently to as ‘deaders’. John Kells Ingram, MRIA, was impressed with the portrait and wrote to Purser on 2 March 1888:

‘I must write a few lines to congratualte you on the production of that admirable work – you have not only given the picture the characteristic pose of the figure and the other externals perfectly but you appear to have marvelously caught and perpetuated on that canvas, the soul of the face in fact, the whole man as we knew him. …’[i]

Rev. Samuel Haughton, MRIA, 1821-97
Mathematician, geologist and scientist
Academy President, 1886-91

Rev. Samuel Haughton, MRIA, 1821-97 (detail) ©RIA

In 1883 Trinity College Dublin paid sixty guineas for a three-quarter length portrait of Samuel Haughton which was exhibited at the RHA to much acclaim. On viewing his likeness Haughton reportedly said to Purser ‘Sarah you have caught me exactly. You can almost see the lies dripping from my lips!’[ii] Haughton liked the look of himself so much he commissioned a smaller bust sized portrait which he presented to the RIA in 1889.

Rev. Charles Graves, MRIA, 1812-99
Bishop of Limerick
Academy President, 1861-66

Rev. William Reeves, MRIA, 1815-92
Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore
Academy President, 1891-92

Rev. Charles Graves, MRIA, 1812-99 Rev. William Reeves, MRIA, 1815-92 ©RIA

This three-quarter length portrait depicts Graves seated, wearing clerical dress and a fez-type hat. The work was completed by December 1892 and presented to the Academy by Graves in 1893. The portrait of Reeves, also of three-quarter length, was commissioned by the RIA and presented by Samuel Haughton, MRIA, on behalf of the subscribers in the same year. The composition of the work is a replica in reverse of the Charles Graves portrait. They hang along side each other in the Moore Library at Academy House.

Rev. James Henthorn Todd, MRIA, 1805-69
Gaelic scholar, Trinity College Dublin
Academy President, 1856-61

Rev. James Henthorn Todd, MRIA, 1805-69 (detail) ©RIA

This portrait was painted many years after the subject’s death and was presented to the RIA by his brother Charles H. Todd in 1893. Like the others, this portrait was damaged during conservation c. 1915, resulting in the darkness of the painting, so much so that Todd’s clerical clothing blends into the background.

Sir William Rowan Hamilton, MRIA, 1805-65
Academy President, 1837-46

Sir William Rowan Hamilton, MRIA, 1805-65 (detail) ©RIA

William Rowan Hamilton is perhaps one of the more recognisable figures associated with the Academy. The portrait was commissioned almost thirty years after Hamilton’s death and was donated to the RIA by John Rowan Hamilton O’Regan. Despite being a ‘deader’ the portrait was lauded by then President of the Academy, John Kells Ingram, as being a very good likeness.

Sir Robert Kane, MRIA, 1809-90
Academy President, 1877-82

Sir Robert Kane, MRIA, 1809-90 (detail) ©RIA

Another posthumous portrait commissioned on behalf of the Academy by subscription. It was officially presented to the Academy in 1896 by his son Judge Robert Kane. Judge Kane and John Kells Ingram, visited Purser’s studio at Harcourt Terrace, Dublin, to the view the portrait; both were pleased with the likeness. Ingram later wrote a letter to the artist expressing his thoughts that the painting is ‘decidedly successful, indeed wonderfully so, when it is remembered that you had never seen him.’[iii]

John Kells Ingram, MRIA, 1823-1907
Poet, economist and librarian
Professor of Oratory, Trinity College, Dublin
Composer of the ballad ‘Who fears to speak of 98’
Academy President, 1892-96

John Kells Ingram, MRIA, 1823-1907 (detail) ©RIA

This portrait was presented to the Academy in 1897 by Ingram’s friends and colleagues in commemoration of his presidency. Ingram was asked to choose the artist himself and he chose Purser. This was the seventh portrait she had been commissioned to paint for the Academy and so Ingram was familiar with her work. Purser’s studio on Harcourt Terrace, and later Mespil House on the Grand Canal, became a regular meeting place for writers, artists and intellectuals. Ingram may also have been acquainted with Purser through these soirées and most certainly visited her studio.

Robert Atkinson, MRIA, 1839-1908
Gaelic scholar
Academy Librarian, 1876-78, Academy President 1901-06

Robert Atkinson, MRIA, 1839-1908 (detail) ©RIA

Atkinson’s health was in decline when he sat for this portrait and he died the following year. Atkinson was an exceptionally gifted linguist and became the first editor of the Academy’s Dictionary of the Irish Language. When he retired he began to compile a Chinese dictionary. A vase of flowers sits on a table in the background of the portrait, a possible nod to his interest in botany. His other interests, namely playing the violin and ju-jitsu, are not depicted!

Sarah Purser was a prolific artist much in demand by the ‘great and the good.’ In her own words she ‘went through the British aristocracy like the measles.’[i] We could say for almost twenty years she went through Academy presidents like a severe bout of flu! Next time you are in Academy House take a look around the walls and learn a little more about our past presidents and members.

Sophie Evans
Assistant Librarian

[i] John O’Grady, The life and work of Sarah Purser (Dublin, 1996), pp. 64-5

[ii] Ibid., p. 42

[iii] Ibid., p. 231

[iv] Elizabeth Coxhead, Daughters of Erin (London, 1965), p. 131