Sarah Purser (1848-1943)

[Sarah Henrietta;] b. 22 March, Kingston [Dun Laoghaire], Co. Dublin; dg. of Benjamin Purser who went bankrupt and moved to the USA in the 1870s; ed. Switzerland, and after the failure of her father’s flour-milling business in 1873, at the Metropolitan Sch. of Art, Dublin - having chosen painting over music as a congenial way to make a living; entered Academie Julian, Paris in 1879 on a loan of £30 from her brothers, living on £1 p.w.; returned Dublin, 1880, and set up studio, attracting commissions by her interpretation of the Continental style, first painted Miss Jane l’Estrange of Sligo, next from Lady Georgina Gore-Booth of her daughters; and went on to earn £30,000 from portrait painting; (‘I went through the aristocracy like the measles’);
exhibited RHA, 1890; ARHA, 1923, RHA, 1925; elected HMRHA in 1890[?] and full MRHA in 1924 in inclusion of women (1919); 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 (‘the largest fortune, it is fair to say, that any Irishwoman has ever amassed by her own unaided efforts’ (Coxhead); funded and organised an important show of works by J. B. Yeats and Nathaniel Hone [the younger] resulting in Hugh Lane’s patronage of Irish Art;
founded An Túr Gloine, at 24 Upr. Pembroke St., 1903, where Evie Hone, Michael Healy, Wilhelmina Geddes, et al. worked; appt. to the Mansion House Committee to develop plans for a modern art gallery; appt. to the board of governors of the National Gallery of Ireland (1904); held her first solo exhibition in 1923;  fnd. Friends of the National Collections of Ireland to secure funds and press for return of Lane pictures from London, 1924; 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; she flew in Oliver St John Gogarty’s plane at 80; d. 7 Aug. 1943; there is an oil portrait by Walter Osborne, and another in brown chalk by Linlian Davison in NGI. BREF DIB DIH

[ top ]

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).


John O’Grady, The Life and Work of Sarah Purser (Blackrock: Four Courts 1996), 288pp., incl. catalogue of 554 works; Clodagh Finn, ‘Recalling Sarah Purser and her towering ambition’, in The Irish Examiner (see extract; sundry details in the above Life due to this source)


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.)

Clodagh Finn, ‘Recalling Sarah Purser and her towering ambition’, in The Irish Examiner (31 Dec. 2022)

 On New Year’s Day 1903, artists were invited to 24 Upper Pembroke Street in Dublin where they gathered around the kiln in a new but “oh, so cold” workshop and drank champagne out of tea cups.

 It was a pivotal moment for Irish artists as An Túr Gloine aimed to provide an alternative to the mass-produced and inferior glass being imported from Europe. Stained glass might be “the thing that is more intoxicating than all the wines of the world”, Purser said, quoting Chesterton, “but it was also the most troublesome and expensive to make”.

 “You cannot do it in a romantic studio with silk cushions, but must work in a grubby work shop, and must have kilns, and a large stock of glass, etc., and someone to cut and glaze, etc, for you,” she went on, explaining that a co-operative would help train artists and allow them to produce work of quality.

 In the early days, Lady Gregory and WB Yeats called to the studio to see the work in progress, but they were not impressed. Yeats wrote an article suggesting that Purser was giving in to the demands of commercialism.

 Purser was swift and forthright in her response. She said the poet had not received an invitation to the studio and his treatment of her went “beyond the limits of decent manners and is conduct which would make all social intercourse impossible”.

 They patched up their differences, however, and Yeats was among the writers, artists, and poets who visited her monthly salon at Mespil House in Ballsbridge, which she leased in 1909. It was a place “full of bubbling gaiety”, critic and editor Mary Colum wrote.

—Clodagh Finn, ‘Recalling Sarah Purser and her towering ambition’, in The Irish Examiner (available online; accessed 01.01.2023.)

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.) Note: Clodagh Finn [supra] adds that she quarrelled with him about the quality of his portrait on the Irish postage stamp.

[ top ]

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.)

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

[ top ]