Sarah Purser had an exuberance and determination that inspired a generation of artists.
Sarah Purser (1848-1943) was a portraitist, stained glass artist, businesswoman, and vigorous campaigner for the visual arts in Ireland. Born in Dún Laoghaire (then Kingstown) she grew up in Dungarvan County Waterford.
She studied drawing and painting at the Dublin School of Art (now the National College of Art & Design) and also at the Académie Julian in Paris. Upon her return to Dublin around 1880 she set about earning her living as a successful portrait artist, assisted by her contacts in the Gore-Booth family of County Sligo.
Douglas Hyde, Constance Gore-Booth (later Countess Markievicz), Michael Davitt, John Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, WB Yeats and Roger Casement are just some of the notable figures in Irish society at that time who sat for her. Exhibiting widely, she was also a landscape and genre painter and was the first woman member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA).
In 1903 Sarah Purser set up An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass), a cooperative which trained Irish artists in the craft of stained glass.
One of her earliest commissions was from an order of nuns living in Gort, County Galway. They had been referred to her by Lady Gregory and had very specific instructions regarding the style of window they wanted.
A short time later, Lady Gregory and WB Yeats called at An Túr Gloine to see how the work was going on and were not impressed with what they saw. In the next issue of his magazine 'Samhain' WB Yeats wrote an article criticising the aesthetics of this stained glass window and also implied that Purser was pandering to commercialism.
Sarah Purser's reply was swift, reminding the poet that as he had not received an invitation to visit An Túr Gloine, and as she had already discussed this matter with him, his treatment of her,
Goes what I consider beyond the limits of decent manners and is conduct which would make all social intercourse impossible.
The two did later become friends again, however.
In promoting stained glass in Ireland An Túr Gloine also sought to provide an alternative to imported stained glass which was being mass produced in Britain and mainland Europe. At its 25th anniversary celebrations, Sarah Purser expressed the wish that more work by Irish artists should be seen in Irish churches of all denominations.
All our energy has to go towards persuading people against bringing in a poorer art than they could get here.
Another of her endeavours was to establish Friends of the National Collections of Ireland in 1924. A voluntary organisation, it preserves Ireland's artistic heritage by securing works of art and artefacts of artistic and historic importance for the purpose of exhibiting them in public galleries across the island of Ireland.
In 1928 Sarah Purser heard that a government department planned to vacate Charlemont House on Parnell Square. Discussions had been going on for years about how Dublin needed another art gallery and she thought this would serve as an excellent location for it.
WT Cosgrave's government agreed with her, and presented the building to Dublin Corporation. Now known as the Dublin Municipal Gallery Of Modern Art, it contains several pictures by Sarah Purser herself and many fine examples of stained glass.
Sarah Purser took little interest in politics during her lifetime, but,
She lived at a time when politics and art and literature walked hand in hand in Ireland.
Although she was not fully sympathetic to the 1916 Rising, she was supportive of the individual men and women who were bringing it about, Countess Markievicz in particular. Padraig Pearse however did not leave much of an impression on her.
The legendary tea parties or salons that took place in Mespil House Sarah Purser’s home on Mespil Road were a much anticipated fixture on Dublin’s social scene. These 'Second Tuesdays' as she called them were ostensibly gatherings where young artists could be introduced to people who would buy their work or employ them. The drawing room of the Victorian mansion she shared with her brother was crammed with,
Writers, politicians of all parties, actors and actresses, and those who had nothing to do with any of professions.
Her energy and enthusiasm for life continued into her eighties. Dissatisfied that her landlord was ignoring her requests to have the roof of her house repaired, she boarded her friend Oliver St John Gogarty’s personal plane and carried out her own aerial inspection of it.
A woman who defied societal norms and expectations, Sarah Purser's lifelong contribution and commitment to the arts combined with organisational skills and creativity in equal measure has continued to benefit Irish society,
But for Sarah and her generosity, her vision and hard-headed business sense, it would have been a poorer generation, in every sense of the word.
This episode of ‘Irish Men And Irish Women: Sarah Purser’ was broadcast on 30 October 1975. The presenter is Ronnie Drew. Sarah Purser is portrayed by Geraldine Plunkett.
'Irish Men And Irish Women' was a television series about notable people in Ireland's history, described by producer Joe O'Donnell as "Mainly unsung heroes...not unknown, but outside the orthodoxy of our national pantheon." (RTÉ Guide, 19 September 1975).
First broadcast on RTÉ Television on 25 September 1975, it ran for three series until 1977.