Purser, Sarah Henrietta (1848–1943), painter, stained-glass artist and entrepreneur, art activist and patron, was born 22 March 1848 at Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), Co. Dublin, third daughter and eighth of ten children of Benjamin (Ben) Purser, grain merchant, miller and brewer, and Anne (Nannie), née Mallet, of The Hermitage, Abbeyside, Dungarvan, Co. Waterford.
John Purser, Benjamin's greatgrandfather, a brewer by 1755, came to Ireland in 1776 to brew porter. His son John and grandson John ‘Secundus', brewmasters from 1799 at St James's Gate Brewery, Dublin, introduced porter and stout there, and became partners. Robert Mallet came to Dublin in 1770 to learn cabinetmaking; his brother Richard, metal founder, came later. Robert married Anne Pike, whose father William had a Dublin plumbing concern since the 1750s. Robert's daughter Thomasina wed Richard's son John, sometime high sheriff of Dublin. John and his son Robert Mallet (qv) consolidated the family enterprises as J. & R. Mallet Engineering. John's and Thomasina's daughter Anne married Benjamin Purser in 1836. William Pike and his wife Hannah Tennant are forebears of the artists William Osborne (qv), Frederick William Burton (qv), Walter Osborne (qv), and Sarah Purser.
Sarah Purser spent 1861–63 at a Swiss school, the Institution Évangélique de Montmirail. She first exhibited at the RHA in 1872; from 1873 studied art in Dublin; won an 1875 RDS landscape-painting prize; and in 1876 initialed, dated and priced a watercolour of Muckross Abbey, Killarney. In 1878–9 she spent six months studying at the Académie Julian, Paris. Fellow students included the Swiss Louise Breslau, who became a lifelong friend, and the wealthy Russian diarist Marie Bashkirtseff, who envied Breslau's talent until ‘Sara’ said that envy was ‘si bête’ and had them shake hands. Marie still envied their ‘eminently artistic sphere', where Breslau's ‘best friend Maria [Feller] is a musician . . . and there is also Sara Purser, painter and philosopher, with whom one has discussions on Kantism, on life, on the self and on death which make one reflect'. Bashkirtseff craved fame, the rest sought a livelihood, and Breslau judged Sarah's ‘serenely despondent philosophy’ would be a help in adversity.
They all adopted the plein-air mode and urchin themes popularised at recent Salons. Sarah sent such an oil painting from Paris to the 1879 RHA, earning good reviews. Her ‘crisp and decisive use of the palette knife’ and ‘power and vigour of treatment’ soon impressed critics. She kept abreast of trends in Paris by annual visits, meeting Degas and Forain through Breslau. Parisian influence was discerned in her work by Dublin critics, and is obvious in ‘Le petit déjeuner’ (1880, NGI) for which Feller posed. Other early genre pieces include ‘Raking in seaweed on the south coast’ (1883, City Art Gallery, Limerick), ‘Lady with a child's rattle’ (1885, NGI), and ‘The coopers’ shop at St James's Gate brewery’ (1889, Guinness Museum, Dublin).
She began showing portraits at the 1881 RHA; one, of a well-known public figure, enthused all three Dublin newspapers with its likeness, the essential talent of a portraitist. One journal proclaimed ‘Samuel Houghton’ (TCD) ‘by common consent the portrait of the year’ at the 1883 RHA, and at the 1884 RHA declared ‘Henry Gore-Booth’ (Lissadell) ‘utterly free from the cut and dry effect of the conventional portrait'. Portraits for English and Scots patricians were shown in 1885 and 1886 at the Royal Academy, London; the viceroy, Lord Londonderry (qv), commissioned his children's portraits in 1888; and during 1887–90 the RHA exhibited more portrait commissions by her than by any other artist. In 1890 the RHA elected her to honorary academician status. An HRHA had what she termed ‘slender privileges', but it was the only recognition given to women.
By then she had a niche in Dublin social, cultural and patriotic circles. From 1881 her studio at 2 Leinster Street attracted callers as lively as her Parisian set, and on her move to 11 Harcourt Terrace in 1886 they followed. ‘Her studio at Harcourt Terrace was a place where a young man thought it a great privilege to have his wits sharpened', wrote Stephen Gwynn (qv) in 1926. Women and men were welcome, provided they had interesting things to say on art, music, literature, antiquities, Gaelic, agrarian unrest or politics. At lectures and debates on such topics she made thumbnail sketches of Michael Davitt (qv), Douglas Hyde (qv), John O'Leary (qv), John Butler Yeats (qv) and Constance Gore-Booth (Constance Markievicz (qv)). She asked Davitt to sit for a portrait shown in London, and relished sitters like John Kells Ingram (qv) (Ulster Museum, Belfast; RIA) and Charles Graves (qv) (RIA). Maud Gonne (qv) posed for ‘The new pet’ (Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin) as a ‘subject’ to go for sale at the 1891 RHA. Sarah tackled social deprivation in ‘An Irish idyll’ (1894, Ulster Museum) and ‘Mother and child with a young woman’ (1894, Hugh Lane Gallery). Her devotee Charles Oldham (qv) owned ‘Disdain’ (1894, Tipperary S.R. County Museum, Clonmel) with its sardonic maidservant. Over 1897–1903 she illustrated stories for magazines edited by George Russell (qv) (1902, NGI) while, as Breslau said, ‘continuing to illustrate the armorial of Great Britain’ with London portraits. When Maud Gonne stayed with her in 1898 and W. B. Yeats (qv) came visiting his muse, Sarah caught his visionary mien and Maud's regal aura in pastels, exhibited twice but never for sale (Hugh Lane Gallery).
Her knowledge of modern Continental and British art put her on the executive committee for the first exhibition of such work in Ireland (held at the RHA galleries on Abbey Street), bringing contact with lenders George Moore (qv) and Edward Martyn (qv) (1899, NGI). She reviewed the show for the May 1899 London Art Journal. In 1900 she published polemics in favour of national self-sufficiency and against mass-produced church art imported by patrons who meanwhile neglected Irish artists. Sharing ideas with Martyn and T. P. Gill (qv) (1898, NGI), they devised a remedial scheme; she would finance and manage a stained-glass studio workshop; she and Gill, who headed vocational education in Ireland, would jointly employ Alfred Child (1875–1939) as supervising artist at the workshop and instructor in stained glass at the Metropolitan School of Art; and Martyn, advisor to Bishop John Healy (qv) for his new cathedral at Loughrea, would seek window commissions for the studio workshop.
Meanwhile, believing Nathaniel Hone (qv) and John B. Yeats neglected, she organised an exhibition of their work in 1901. Visiting it, Hugh Lane (qv) conceived his plan for a Dublin gallery of modern art.
Her stained-glass enterprise opened as An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass) on 1 January 1903 with two commissions, one for Loughrea, and a ‘Naomh Andris’ window for a Martyn cousin. Child began the former; she designed the latter, executing craft stages under Child's guidance (catholic church, Laban, Co. Galway). Then, autonomously, she created ‘Breandán naomhtha ar an muir’ (catholic cathedral, Loughrea, Co. Galway). She ran the enterprise as a cooperative for forty years, with artistic and commercial success.
She launched a 1909 Neo-Impressionist exhibition in Paris. After lunch with Maud Gonne and W. B. Yeats, the latter told his father she was ‘as characteristic as ever'. The move to Mespil House followed. ‘She lived here full of bubbling gaiety', according to Mary Colum (qv), and her monthly salon was pivotal in her influence on Irish cultural affairs. The lord mayor of Dublin appointed her to the 1912 Mansion House committee forwarding plans for a modern art gallery. In 1914 the viceroy appointed her to the NGI board of governors and guardians, where she was active in electing successive directors, in retaining old-master pictures from Lane's legacy, and in smoothing NGI affairs at the 1922 government transition.
Her painting career continued: at the RHA over 1901–28 she showed genre, landscape, and fifty portraits including ‘Sir Roger Casement’ (1914, NGI), a commission won against competition. Between 1904 and 1930 her work was in five representative selections of Irish art shown abroad. In 1923 she was elected ARHA, and held her one solo exhibition. She achieved full RHA status in 1924, and co-founded Friends of the National Collections of Ireland. Her 1928 proposal to W. T. Cosgrave (qv) secured Charlemont House as the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art. In 1933 she and Sir John Griffith (qv) funded art history scholarships which bear their names. Her last known figure picture, painted in two hours in 1935, portrays her favourite model Kathleen Behan (qv) (née Kearney). Her final commission was to design the John Dowland memorial in 1937 for Sorrento Park, Dalkey; the opus sectile panel by An Túr Gloine was vandalised and poorly restored subsequently.
On 7 August 1943 she died at Mespil House, following a stroke precipitated by the ‘bad art’ of a postage stamp marking the golden jubilee of the Gaelic League. Her epitaph, justly, is Fortis et strenua.