One of the great joys of the internet lies in occasionally stumbling upon personal websites that publicly record the kind of anecdotes that can only come from oral history and family lore, but which have wider historical associations. HumphreysFamilyTree.com is one such site. It contains a brief mention of Dr Marie Lea-Wilson, the woman whose purchase was the first in a series of unlikely steps that led to the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) becoming home to a lost 1602 Caravaggio masterpiece, The Taking of Christ.
Delighted to welcome @PresidentIRL here today, to mark 25 years since the unveiling of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. President Higgins was Minister for Arts, Culture & the Gaeltacht at the time, and was present at the initial unveiling back in 1993! #caravaggio25 pic.twitter.com/3WoTqPRD0t— Nat Gallery Ireland (@NGIreland) November 15, 2018
On Friday, the painting was celebrated again with events to mark the 25th anniversary of its 1993 unveiling at the Merrion Square gallery, but the story really begins in 1921.
Marie Lea-Wilson was the widow of an assassinated RIC officer, shot dead on a street in Gorey, County Wexford, on the orders of Michael Collins in 1920. A year after her husband’s death, she went to Scotland on holiday, where she bought a religious painting in an estate sale. It was believed to be by the early 17th-century Dutch artist Gerard Von Honthorst. She brought it home and hung it up, but in the early 1930s decided to give it as a gift to a Jesuit priest, in gratitude for his friendship. Fr Thomas Finlay SJ was living in the Jesuit House of Writers at Lower Leeson Street in Dublin, so the painting was hung in the dining room.
"I’ll give this old painting to the Jesuits"
The tale of how Italian conservator Sergio Benedetti, who worked at the NGI, spotted it there in 1990, and spent three years meticulously working to have it authenticated, has become a kind of public lore. Here’s where Humphreysfamilytree.com com comes in.
In a section entitled My Ancestors - Flanagan, the website's author Mark Humphreys records a friendship between his grandmother, Dr Nora Stack, and Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. When Nora’s daughter Peggy was born in 1934, she asked Marie to be the baby’s godmother. Her friend accepted and gave the infant a christening present of some jewellery. Around the same time, she gave the painting to Fr Finlay. "She was not a collector or speculator," writes Humphreys, "she liked it just because it was a nice religious painting. No one had any idea of its worth."
He continues, "It is a family joke now that one could imagine Marie Lea-Wilson deciding on presents: "Now, this nice painting for Peggy. No. I'll tell you what. I'll get her some nice jewellery. I'll give this old painting to the Jesuits..." Eighty years on, visitors to the NGI can be grateful that she did.
Nora Stack and Marie Lea-Wilson were class mates in medicine in Trinity College in the late 1920s. Although Catholic (the Catholic churched banned members from attending Trinity without special dispensation from 1871 to 1970), Lea-Wilson graduated in 1928 as a mature student in her late 30s and went on to become a well-known paediatrician. The woman who bought the Caravaggio never learnt its value or true origins. She passed away in 1971, aged 84, two decades before Benedetti spotted it.