Purser, Sarah (1848–1943)

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Purser, Sarah (1848–1943)

Irish artist and patron who founded The Tower of Glass, an Irish stained-glass workshop. Born Sarah Henrietta Purser in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), County Dublin, Ireland, on March 22, 1848; died in Dublin on August 7, 1943; daughter of Benjamin Purser and Anne (Mallet) Purser; educated at Moravian school in Switzerland; never married.

Sarah Henrietta Purser was born in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire), County Dublin, Ireland, in 1848, the daughter of Benjamin Purser and Anne Mallet Purser . The Pursers, a family of brewers who came to Ireland in the 18th century from Gloucestershire, England, all worked for Arthur Guinness' brewery, including Sarah's grandfather, uncle, and father, but there was also an academic tradition in the family. Sarah's father taught at Portora Royal School in County Fermanagh (where one of his pupils was Oscar Wilde), and two of her brothers would become professors at Trinity College Dublin. Sarah and her sisters received a good education at a Moravian school in Switzerland, where they became fluent in French, but when their schooldays were over they were expected to live at home until they married. Benjamin set up two breweries of his own but eventually converted them to flour mills which were initially prosperous. In 1873, however, the business collapsed, and Sarah knew she would have to earn her own living.

Purser was a competent artist and had already exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy, but she decided to go to Paris to improve her skills to a professional standard. In 1878, she spent six months working in the "ladies' section" of the Académie Julien, where her fellow students included the Swiss artist Louise Breslau , who became a lifelong friend, and the Russian artist Marie Bashkirtseff , whose diaries later became a bestseller. When she returned to Dublin, Purser quickly secured important commissions, among them a portrait of sisters Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth , and by the late 1880s she had financial security augmented by shrewd investments in Guinness company shares. Elizabeth Coxhead observes that as an interpreter of styles evolved by others, Purser was artistically in the first rank, but she started her career too late to have a truly original artistic vision. Coxhead also notes that Purser was happiest when painting clever people, especially clever men. Her portraits of women were more conventional and banal.

With the advent of such artists as Nathaniel Hone and J.B. Yeats, and interested patrons like Edward Martyn and Hugh Lane, the Dublin art scene became more stimulating. In 1886, Purser was a founder member of the Dublin Art Club with J.B. Yeats and Walter Osborne. She befriended Yeats and his family, though the artist's improvidence frequently exasperated her, and she took a particular interest in his son, Jack B. Yeats, whose gifts she quickly appreciated and whom she helped by securing commissions and other work. Purser displayed similar generosity to generations of Irish artists; less welcome to some were her constant scoldings and chivvying. Purser traveled to Europe every year and kept up with new developments in painting. It was through her interest in Impressionism that she came to know Edward Martyn, who in 1898 founded the Irish Literary Theatre with W.B. Yeats and Augusta Gregory . In 1899, Purser helped to organize a major exhibition in Dublin of works by Corot, Courbet, Degas, Manet, Monet and others, which made a considerable impact. She became close friends with Hugh Lane, whom she encouraged in his dream of building up a collection of modern paintings in Dublin. At her instigation, Lane gave commissions to J.B. Yeats.

Martyn was much concerned about standards of Irish ecclesiastical architecture and particularly the quality of stained glass. When he suggested the idea of a stained-glass workshop to Purser, the idea had already been germinating in her mind. She persuaded the Dublin College of Art to revise its curriculum to include arts needed for church decoration, and she visited the studio of Christopher Whall, one of the leading stained-glass artists in England, who promised her the services of his best student, A.E. Childe. Purser found premises in Dublin and in January 1903 An Túr Gloine (Thoor Glinna), The Tower of Glass, opened. It became one of the finest stained-glass workshops in the world and produced generations of gifted artists, among them Michael Healy, Catherine O'Brien, Wilhelmina Geddes, Ethel Rhind and Hubert MacGoldrick.

Breslau, Louise (1857–1927)

Swiss artist. Born in 1857 (some sources cite 1856); died in 1927.

Swiss artist Louise Breslau enjoyed an early success in the salons of Paris. Once considered a better artist than Marie Bashkirtseff , Breslau is now known chiefly as an object of envy in Bashkirtseff's famous diaries, though Janet Flanner thought her a "superior painter" and perhaps a "superior person." Breslau, who won many medals for her work, was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion. In 1937, her paintings were included in the retrospective section of the "Les Femmes Artistes de l'Europe" exhibition, which was held at the Musée du Jeu de Paume and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.


Flanner, Janet. Paris Was Yesterday. NY: Viking, 1972.

In 1911, Purser and her brother John moved to Mespil House in Dublin, a beautiful 18th-century dwelling with magnificent plaster ceilings. Here she held her famous "Second Tuesdays," on the second Tuesday of every month, when she was at home to visitors. It became the most notable salon in Dublin, where artists, politicians, writers, academics and professional people of every shade of opinion gathered and conversed. Purser described herself as a Protestant Unionist but accepted Irish independence when it came in 1922 and became friendly with the new leader of the Irish Free State, W.T. Cosgrave. In 1924, she founded the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland, still in existence, which donated many works to Irish galleries and museums. In 1928, she persuaded Cosgrave to donate Charlemont House as a new Dublin Municipal Gallery, to be named after Hugh Lane who had died in the Lusitania sinking in 1915. She and Augusta Gregory were unremitting in their efforts to secure the return of Lane's Impressionist paintings to Ireland. Purser was also instrumental in establishing art history courses at Trinity College and University College Dublin which have since produced respected scholars and museum directors. Her last public service was to list the works from the National Gallery of Ireland to be removed to safety when World War II broke out.

Although in her 90s, Purser was undaunted by the privations of the war, including the chronic shortage of fuel in Ireland. The war curtailed her foreign travel, but she went regularly to the west of Ireland. She died at the age of 95, in 1943, following a stroke.


Coxhead, Elizabeth. "Sarah Purser and the Tower of Glass," in Daughters of Erin: Five Women of the Irish Renascence. London: Secker & Warburg, 1965.

O'Grady, John. The Life and Work of Sarah Purser. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland