Sarah Purser (1848-1943)

Life

[Sarah Henrietta;] b. 22 March, Kingston [Dun Laoghaire], Co. Dublin; ed. Switzerland, and after the failure of her father’s flour-milling business in 1873, at the Metropolitan Sch. of Art, Dublin; entered Academie Julian, Paris, 1879; returned Dublin and set up studio, attracting commissions by her interpretation of the Continental style and through friendship with Gore-Booths (‘I went through the aristocracy like the measles’); earned 30,000 from portrait painting; exhibited RHA; HRHA, 1890, ARHA, 1923, RHA, 1925; friend of Michael Davitt, whose portrait she exhibited successfully in London, 1892; became wealthy through by shrewd investment in Guinness when it became public stock company;
 
mounted important show of works by J..B. Yeats and Nathaniel Hone [the younger] resulting in Hugh Lane’s patronage; founded An Túr Gloine, at 24 Upr. Pembroke St., 1903, where Evie Hone, Michael Healy, et al. worked; fnd. Friends of the National Collections of Ireland, 1924, to secure funds and press for return of Lane pictures from London; entertained literary and artistic Dublin with her brother John (TCD Prof. of Medicine), at Mespil House, which they rented; persuaded Cosgrave to hand over Charlemont House for Municipal Gallery in 1930; d. 7 Aug.; there is a portrait in brown chalk by Linlian Davison in NGI. BREF DIB DIH

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Works
Irish portraits, Samuel Ferguson by Sarah Purser [sic] signed 1888; Maud Gonne by Sarah Purser; John Kells Ingram by Sarah Purser; also Sarah Purser by Mary Swanzy; see Anne Crookshank, Irish Portraits Exhibition [Catalogue] (Ulster Mus. 1965); NOTE, several of her portraits are displayed in the North Dining-room at TCD Senior (Common Room).

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Criticism
John O’Grady, The Life and Work of Sarah Purser (Blackrock: Four Courts 1996), 288pp., incl. catalogue of 554 works.

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Commentary
W. B. Yeats, “Autobiography”, in Memoir, ed. Denis Donoghue (London: Macmillan 1972): ‘Among my Dublin friends was an artist, Miss Sarah Purser. She ws so clever a woman that people found it impossible to believe she was a bad painter. She carried with her the prestige of a family which contained great scholars who had published no books, and men of science famous for clarity and greatness of range who had made no discoveries. She herself, though [43] considerate when her heart was touched, gave currenty to a small, genuine wit by fastening to it, like a pair of wings, brutality.’ Yeats goes on to speak of an encounter with her in which she tells of meeting Maud Gonne in Paris in company with a very tall man, and hearing from a doctor that they would both be dead in six month. he also speaks of her portrait of Maud Gonne, made ‘in conscious imitation’ of the frontispiece of a book by Marie Bashkirtseff - a ‘girl full of egotism ... and not very interesting talent.’ (pp.43.44.)

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A. N. Jeffares, W B Yeats: A New Biography (1988), p.158, In the Abbey one evening [Miss Horniman] and Sarah Purser could hardly be got out of the theatre, in eager converse in the Hall, agreeing that Lady Gregory was ‘too stupid to be allowed to live’ (as reported in Lady Gregory’s Journal, p.350, on Yeats’s account of it.)

Dominic Daly, The Young Douglas Hyde (1974) gives account of Hyde’s visits at Sarah Purser’s (p.95.)

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Notes
Sins of the father?: Sarah Purser remarked to Maud Gonne of her son Seaghan (Sean MacBride) during a visit in Paris in 1907: ‘Aren’t you afraid that he’ll grow up to be a murderer?’ (See R. F. Foster, Life of Yeats, 1997).

Willie’s passport: John Butler Yeats asked Miss Purser to listen to a poem by his son [WBY] called “The Priest and the Fairy”, to which she ‘said she would listen without any sympathy. But she listened.’ JBY writes: ‘From that moment she and her family became my son’s friends. His passports were made out and he was free to enter the kingdom of poetry, all because of that little poem ... in which these infallible critics had found the true note; the fresh note of the Discoverer.’ (JBY, Memoirsm I, f.451; quoted in quoted in William M. Murphy, ‘Early Education of W. B. Yeats’, in A Revew of English Literature, Oct. 1967, p.93.)

Exhibition (I): The peremptory rejection of paintings by John B. Yeats at the RHA in 1901 led to Sarah Purser mounting at her own expense and exhibition of his and Nathaniel Hone’s work on 21 Oct.-3 Nov. 1901 in the rooms of Royal Soc. of Antiquaries, St Stephen’s Green. Yeats’s contributions included his portrait of John O’Leary. (See S. B. Kennedy, Irish Art & Modernism, 1991.)

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Exhibition (II): Gorry Gallery, exhib. ‘Drawings and Watercolours, Sarah Purser 1848-1943’ (23 May-3 June 1993); inc. John Butler Yeats, pencil.

Art sales: “A Visitor” [a single female in white, penumbral, semi-reclining, with fan; oil on canvas], was sold for £1 at the auction of her house contents in 1943 and offered for €60-80,000 at Whyte’s in 2005

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