The National Gallery’s Leah Benson on uncovering the hidden stories of female artists like Sarah Cecilia Harrison
As is often the case, the National Gallery of Ireland’s archive of Irish art naturally focused on men. It’s just a reflection on how it was. It was difficult to be an established female artist.
hen we held the 2018 exhibition [In]Visible: Irish women artists from the archives, it really showed what a huge void there was to fill. The male artists are all there and easy to find, but the female ones we had to go looking for.
We have since made efforts to try to improve this imbalance. We found these almost whispered stories of women who failed as artists. These are women who trained at the RHA (Royal Hibernian Academy) and then they left. It was often that their families didn’t support them as artists, or that they had to get married and quit.
If you look at women artists, it was often a certain type, who had a certain independent wealth, who remained single and had no children.
Sarah Cecilia Harrison appeared when we were doing this exhibit and she’s a fascinating person. She was a highly accomplished portrait painter – her posthumous portrait of Michael Collins hangs on the Taoiseach’s desk – but also a strong and active woman in Irish politics. She was active in women’s suffrage, was the first woman on Dublin City Council and was really at the heart of campaigns to support the poor.
She was born in 1863 in Holywood, Co Down. His father died in the 1870s and the family’s fortunes took a bit of a turn for the worse. They moved to London, and there she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she won several awards.
Art was not in her family at all, but it was clear they had her back and there was money so she could pursue this life. His brother, Henry Harrison, was a Home Ruler, an Irish Parliamentary Party MP and was known as Parnell’s last foot soldier.
When Danske Bank closed its retail branch network, it returned safes to their owners, but also had a number of safes with undocumented owners. In one of these boxes was a small leather suitcase with a sheaf of 450 letters; the initials on many of them were ‘SCH’.
They discovered it was Sarah Cecilia Harrison and contacted Anne Chisholm, who was the granddaughter of Harrison’s sister Beatrice.
They turned out to be an incredible archive of letters between Harrison and Hugh Lane, from 1905 to 1915, when Lane died aboard the Lusitania which was sunk by a submarine.
I had met Anne through the filming of the docudrama Citizen way, which covered the deep and enduring friendship between Hugh Lane and Sarah Cecilia Harrison. There was a feeling that she was very much in love with him.
Anne, who is an acclaimed writer and biographer, contacted me because she didn’t know what to do with the letters. Sometimes it is difficult for families to give these items as gifts, so they eventually auctioned them off and the National Gallery of Ireland purchased them. Then, in a great act of generosity, they returned the money to us.
We are cataloging the letters at this time, for the online Gallery archives, sourcenationalgallery.ie, which is a very strong public archive, library and research centre. It was important to do something appropriate with the money, so it was decided to do a trial prize around new research on women in Irish visual arts.
It made sense to put Sarah Cecilia Harrison’s name on it.
The more we talk about these women artists, the more collections can come out of cabinetmaking. There is the danger that if we don’t find them, they may end up scattered at auction or in a dumpster. Then whole and complete stories of female artists would be lost.
Interview with Sarah Caden
The closing date for entries for the 2022 Sarah Cecilia Harrison Essay Prize is September 9 at midnight. To win the €1,000, entries must include a 5,000-word English essay, including footnotes, endnotes and artist biography. Over 18s only. To enter, see nationalgallery.ie