Tom Vaughan- Lawlor plays Hugh Lane, the Cork-born art dealer who perished on the Lusitania, writes Esther McCarthy.
He was the colourful, debonair and shrewd collector who brought world-class art to Ireland.
But beyond Hugh Lane’s collection of paintings and untimely death when the Lusitania was attacked by a German submarine off the coast of Kinsale in 1915, relatively little is known of the man synonymous with Irish art.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor aims to flesh out this charismatic man in director Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s ambitious and fascinating blend of drama and documentary.
Citizen Lane, written by Mark O’Halloran, tells of Lane’s battle to establish the world’s first public modern art gallery in Dublin, his life and death, and his contested will that saw many of his paintings exhibited in London rather than Dublin, which continues to arouse controversy to this day.
For the Irish actor, researching Lane’s life and character made it a fascinating project before the cameras even started rolling.
“I didn’t really know anything about him to be honest,” he tells me. I knew that he founded a municipal gallery, and I knew the gallery in Dublin carried his name, and I knew he died aboard the Lusitania. But I didn’t know much about his life.
“What Mark does is weave in so much information without making it expositional, making it very natural and inherently part of the drama of a scene. There’s the biography of him that’s very thorough and very detailed, and then there was a brilliant researcher who also collated a load of material for us to look at.
"He was passionate about the potential of culture, the potential of art, to transform a whole nation. That’s very inspiring to play, and also very relevant to our times — the importance that culture has and should have in society.
"That culture and art is at the centre of educating our kids, for their own mental health, for their own wellbeing. I just think it’s so important, as he did.”
Even though Vaughan-Lawlor has transformed himself into the early 20th century collector — and bears an uncanny resemblance to him in full costume — he wasn’t initially sure he was right for the role.
“It’s that funny thing as an actor, sometimes someone will say to you: ‘We think you might be right for this’, and you go: ‘Oh God, I think I’m miles away from that’.
"Casting is a very interesting science, and sometimes people see the rightness of you in a part more than you can.”
Lane’s was a life less ordinary.
A man of multiple contradictions, by turns parsimonious and generous, a lover of aesthetic beauty and a monumental snob, he was born to Adelaide Persse (sister of Lady Gregory) and her clergyman husband, James Lane, in Cork in 1875. They had an unhappy marriage and separated when he was in his teens.
Moving between Ireland and the UK, he had little formal education but made his way to London, where Lady Gregory had arranged for him to train under an art dealer.
He was a revelation — energetic, ambitious, and with a natural taste and instinct for art dealing that quickly made him a big name in the art world. By his mid-twenties he’d established his first gallery and earned a fortune through buying,
restoring and selling old masters.
Lane began exhibiting in Dublin and commissioning artists like William Orpen and John Yeats. It was then that he made a plan — to set up a permanent museum of modern art for Dublin.
It was the early years of the twentieth century, a time of political and social turmoil in the city, and few saw the worth in his ambition.
“He was more traditionalist in his taste. But his understanding of art’s transformative nature was very progressive,” observes Vaughan-Lawlor.
“And also he had hopes for Dublin as a city. Like Pádraig Pearse, in a way, in terms of how important culture was to the soul of a country.
“Politics was getting in the way of his plans for the gallery, and I know other people were very dismissive, that this was no time for art, and that had to take second place to politics.
"Obviously in the intensity of that time around Ireland, art being seen as a total luxury is understandable on one hand. But on the other hand, you also go: if ever we need culture, if ever we need art, it’s in a time of crisis.”
Bitter at opposition from the city’s council to his plans to build a gallery spanning the Liffey, Lane made a decision that continues to cause controversy.
He changed his will so that some of his collection, including Renoir’s Les Parapluies, would be left to the National Gallery in London.
He later amended this back to his original plans to leave his French paintings to Dublin, but this was not witnessed and the controversy continues to this day. Some of the paintings are shared in an agreement between the two galleries.
The advent of World War I changed everything. The art market collapsed and Lane’s financial position became far more uncertain.
In 1915 he travelled to New York for business, and was one of more than a thousand passengers who died when the Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Cork. His body was never recovered. He was just 39 years old.
Threats had been made against the liner, but few could have believed they would be followed through.
“Around that time they all knew that there was a risk. And they were well aware of the potential for some form of attack, that that might happen,” says the actor.
Since breaking through as the iconic criminal Nidge in Love/Hate, Vaughan-Lawlor has hardly put a step wrong, and, if anything, his career is reaching greater peaks.
He recently completed a highly successful run on Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party in London and in the past few weeks alone, shone as Thanos’s henchman Ebony Maw in Avengers: Infinity War and Irish zombie horror The Cured.
It’s an incredibly diverse range of projects for any actor to have on their CV.
“You know, I’ve been in films, plays, TV shows that have not been well received but I’ve been really proud of them. And vice versa — things that have been celebrated but I didn’t think… I wasn’t at my best, I wasn’t fully committed, or whatever. And so it’s a very strange dynamic.
“I find one of the great things about acting is I love playing characters — but one of the joys too is finishing, and then the next day, cutting your hair, or just going back to yourself and kind of wiping the slate clean. That’s a real joy, and a sadness too, because you’re letting go of a person you have loved. But it’s also a nice way to kind of draw a line, to move on.”
Citizen Lane is in cinemas across Ireland from Friday