Furlong, George Joseph (1898–1987), art historian and gallery director, was born 1 February 1898 in Dundrum, seven miles north-west of Cashel, Co. Tipperary, son of Michael Furlong, hotel proprietor, and Kate Mary Furlong (née Bourke). Although he was orphaned at 9, the family enjoyed considerable means, allowing his education at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare (1910–16). He read mental and moral science at UCD (1916–20), and studied the history of art and archaeology at the Sorbonne and the universities of Grenoble, Munich, and Vienna, obtaining a doctorate at the latter institution for a thesis on tenth-and-eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon book illustration (1928). Fluent in French and German, after training as a museum guide in Vienna, and lecturing in London at the Tate and the National galleries, he was appointed director of the NGI in 1935 — the youngest and most academically qualified person to hold the position to that date. Drawing on his scholarship and enthusiasm, with an acute eye for quality and beauty in a work, despite confronting numerous obstacles he made a distinguished contribution to the gallery's collections. Equipped throughout most of his tenure with an annual government purchase grant of only £1,000 (the increase to £2,000 that he negotiated in 1937 being suspended during the second world war), augmented by the limited resources of the fund established by Hugh Lane (qv), he sought out works by artists lesser known and unfashionable at the time, many of his acquisitions latterly being judged masterpieces. Included among them were noteworthy paintings by masters of the Italian baroque, including Gentileschi (‘David and Goliath’ (c.1610)), Castiglione (‘The finding of the infant Cyrus’ (1650s)), Crespi (1665–1747) (‘Massacre of the innocents’), and Ricci (‘King Hiero of Syracuse and Archimedes’ (1720s)). ‘Party feasting in a garden’ (c.1650), as the only known signed work by the baroque art critic and biographer Giovanni Battista Passeri (c.1610–79), provides the basis for scholarly attribution of the artist's entire, small œuvre. Notable among Furlong's acquisitions representing other schools are an exquisite small panel from a portable diptych now attributed to the Master of Verucchio depicting a ‘Crucifixion and “Noli me tangere”’ (c.1330); a riveting portrait of a young man (c.1525) by Giovan Francesco Penni, the leading pupil of Raphael; a portrait of a Venetian senator by Tintoretto (1518–94); a ‘Calling of St Matthew’ by the south Netherlandish master Marinus van Reymerswaele (1497–1567); and ‘Man singing by candlelight’ (c.1640), a striking, Caraveggesque treatment by Adam de Coster of Antwerp.
Immediately on his appointment, Furlong initiated a long-needed project of cleaning and restoring paintings on the basis of expert assessment. Although he found administration tedious, and accomplished little research and writing, he had an aptitude for display, demonstrating considerable taste in the hanging of paintings and the arrangement of gallery space. He installed new electric lighting, and established a fund to finance publications and postcards. Despite such innovations in outreach, gallery visitation remained poor amid prevailing public and official attitudes of apathy and prudery towards the fine arts (including periodic objections to the exhibition of nudes). Alienated from the political and cultural disposition of the ‘new Ireland’, clashing temperamentally with the NGI's registrar, the writer Brinsley McNamara (qv), and shackled by the cautious philistinism of the gallery's trustees, Furlong was intensely unhappy in the post and with his life in Dublin. His position as director being part-time, he also maintained a residence in London, travelling between the two cities on a monthly basis. He refused for political reasons a decoration offered by Mussolini for his efforts in lending a painting to Italy. During the Emergency (1939–45) he reluctantly complied with a ministerial directive and removed the more important works from the gallery for safe storage in provincial locations for fear of prospective air raids. Disillusioned by repeated failures to acquire important works (including several post-impressionist masterpieces, and a portrait of W. B. Yeats (qv) by Augustus John) owing to vacillation or outright rejection of his recommendations by the trustees, after losing Murillo's ‘Christ healing at the pool of Bethesda’ to London's national gallery, Furlong resigned in desperation (1950). Retiring to his London home, he devoted himself to the arts, music, travel, and cultivation of a vast friendship, and was particularly noted for his generous encouragement, promotion, and patronage of young artists. A fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, he was vice-president of Friends of the National Collections of Éire. He last visited Ireland in the late 1960s. Unmarried, he lived with his long-time companion, Rex Britcher. After suffering infirmity for some months, he died 6 May 1987 in London, leaving an estate valued at £764,322. He is buried in Kent.