Everyone knows what the revolutionary leader Michael Collins looks like. The floppy fringe; the resolute jaw; the slight smile about the eyes: all are familiar to anyone with an interest in the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War.
In his lifetime, however, and particularly at the height of the revolutionary struggle he directed from Dublin, Collins was a largely mysterious figure.
Despite his notoriety as “the most wanted man in the British Empire”, his face was so little known that he could get about the city on his bicycle, and openly eat and drink in restaurants and bars.
It was only after the truce of July 1921 that Collins became a public figure, and most of the photographs that exist of him date from that window of time between the truce and his death, aged 31, in August 1922.
Collins had the distinction of being painted twice by John Lavery, the most feted society portrait artist of his day. The first portrait was completed when Collins was in London for the Treaty negotiations in late 1921, the second as he lay dead in his coffin.
This second painting, Michael Collins (Love of Ireland), is now in the collection of Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane, and is currently on view as part of the exhibition, Picturing the Irish Free State.
“Lavery and his wife Hazel were in Dublin when Collins was shot, and had seen him in the days before his death,” says Logan Sisley, head of collections at the Hugh Lane.
“So Lavery was on hand when Collins’s body was brought up to Dublin. He started work on the painting in the chapel at St Vincent's Hospital.
"In his autobiography he gives an account of the kind of difficulties he had to deal with trying to paint in that context.
He wrote of how ‘the stillness was broken at long intervals by someone entering the chapel on tiptoe, kissing the brow, and then slipping to the door where I could hear a burst of suppressed grief.’”
Lavery continued working on the painting after Collins’s body was brought to City Hall, and then he took it back to London, to finish at his studio.
“Then he decided to add the text on the right, ‘Love of Ireland.’ Obviously it’s an expression of his interpretation of Collins’s love of Ireland, but maybe it’s also an expression of his own feelings. It certainly adds to the emotional power of the painting.”
In London the previous year for the Treaty negotiations, Collins had been a regular visitor to the home of John and Hazel Lavery at No 5 Cromwell Place in South Kensington. Lavery, a Belfast-born Catholic who was knighted in 1918, produced portraits of 14 of the Treaty negotiators, including Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George on one side, and Collins and Arthur Griffith on the other. In this period, the Laverys’ home became a sort of ‘neutral ground’ where side-line negotiations were conducted away from the glare of the media.
But Collins’s friendship with the Laverys went further back again. As a young man working as a clerk in London, he was part of a social world that revolved around art exhibitions, the theatre and literature. He was introduced to the Laverys as early as 1913, at a time when he was also great friends with JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan.
During the Treaty negotiations, Collins and the Laverys became closer again, and he would meet Hazel each morning at 8am for Mass at Brompton Oratory.
Some newspapers alleged they embarked on an affair, but there is no evidence of this. Hazel was American, and married to a particularly liberal individual, and neither thought anything of her being seen in public with other men. And Collins, for his part, was devoted to his fiancée Kitty Kiernan.
By the time he left London in December 1921, Collins was a celebrity, and was mobbed by thousands of well-wishers as he boarded the train at Euston Station. When he was shot just eight months later, newspapers around the world carried accounts of his death on their front pages.
“Shortly after John Lavery finished his painting of Collins in his coffin, he showed it privately to groups of journalists at his studio,” says Sisley.
“A reproduction print was issued, and the image was widely circulated in the British press, in British provincial newspapers as well as in Irish newspapers.
“The painting was then shown in Paris in October 1922, again, just months after Collins’s death.”
The painting helped popularise the Irish flag – the tri-colour of green, white and orange – as a national symbol.
“Lavery also painted Collins’s funeral in the Pro Cathedral in Dublin. Lavery liked painting these big ceremonial set pieces, and again, he painted Collins’s coffin draped with the tri-colour.”
Lavery always intended to donate both paintings to an institution in Ireland, and in the 1930s they came to the Hugh Lane, or the Municipal Gallery as it was then known.
Reproductions of the painting Michael Collins (Love of Ireland) have often been used on book covers.
“The painting has a very striking presence,” says Sisley. “It’s a really arresting image, with the pale face and the purple cushion behind the head, and the band of colour of the flag. I think it’s one of the most requested images for reproduction in the collection.”
The musician Gavin Friday adapted the image for use on the cover of his album catholic in 2011. At the time, he said: “I loved the dignity, the serenity, the beauty of it. There was the idea of sleeping and awakening; a new resurrection.”
After Collins’s death, the Laverys’ association with Ireland only deepened. When John Lavery was invited to produce a female representation of Ireland as part of the design of the new national currency, he chose to paint his wife, and Hazel’s image adorned Irish banknotes from 1928 to the 1970s, surviving as the watermark until the arrival of the euro in 2002.
- Further information: hughlane.ie