Sarah Purser RHA (1848 - 1943)

Purser was a powerhouse in Irish art and in particular for women in Irish art

08/05/2024     Artworks

Sarah Henrietta Purser was born to a large and relatively well-off family in Dun Laoighre on 22nd March 1848. Purser was a powerhouse in Irish art and in particular is of great importance when viewing the position of women in Irish art and the development of time.


Aged just 13, Purser attended the Moravian school, Institution Evangélique de Montmirail in Switzerland where she learned to speak fluent French and developed her artistic abilities. In 1873, her father’s flour business unfortunately failed, so she took up painting as her full-time career. She attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, the Dublin Sketching Club as an honorary member, and attended the Académie Julian in Paris. She did not rest on her laurels, but was constantly learning and developing her abilities.


Sarah Purser’s achievements both as an artist and a woman are remarkable. In 1878 she began to exhibit works at the Royal Hibernian Academy and she would do so for the next fifty years. In 1903 she founded An Túr Gloine and continued to financially support the stained glass group until she retired at the age of 92. An Túr Gloine was not only beneficial to the art community, providing roles and education for artists such as Evie Hone and Catherine Geddes, but it also created a locally produced commodity, so that churches, schools, and other public buildings did not have to look internationally or have to import stained glass which was not only expensive to do, but also a risk due to the fragile nature of glass.


In 1914, she became the second ever woman to sit on the Board of Governors and Guardians for the National Gallery of Ireland until her death in 1943. Most notably, Sarah Purser became the first female member of the RHA in 1923, paving the way for other female artists in Irelan; with the RHA only electing its first female president in 2018.


Purser had a great ability to connect with her sitter; oftentimes they were her friends or family. For example, in the Design Sale, the drawing we have by Purser is of ‘The Artist and her Cousin’. This year marks 100 years since the foundation of the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland which was set up by Purser, alongside other like minded friends and artists who understood the need to support the collections, and this is still vital to Irish art today

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