France’s loss but Ireland’s gain

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2017), News, Volume 25

New research on Françoise Henry’s relationship with the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye

By Peter Harbison

Above: A posthumous portrait of Françoise Henry by Vera Clute, one of a quartet recently commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy to honour the first four women to have been elected to the Academy in 1949. (RIA)

Among Irish archaeologists and art historians, the name of Françoise Henry (1902–82) is best known for her trilogy on Irish art, which appeared in the 1960s. In 2012, appreciations of her life and work appeared in Barbara Wright and Janet Marquardt’s separate publications on her excavations on the island of Inishkea North off the Mullet Peninsula in Mayo, and most recently in a volume edited by Carla Briggs on the Department of Art History in UCD. Two years ago, Laurent Olivier, conservator in the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris, contributed an article to Vol. 46 of the museum’s journal Antiquités Nationales, giving details of what the museum’s archives revealed about Henry’s connections with the institution before and during the Second World War which are virtually unknown in Ireland and worth summarising here in brief. (The Royal Irish Academy’s library has a copy of the journal.)

The year before her arrival in Ireland in 1926, Henry had been recruited on a voluntary basis by Henri Hubert to work on French material in what was then the Musée des Antiquités Nationales. Hubert was succeeded as deputy director by Raymond Lantier, who helped her become an official scientific collaborator in the museum. When Lantier became director, he pushed for Françoise to become assistant director (a post which frequently led to that of director), but it was Claude Schaeffer who got the job. Despite this, she continued her contacts with the museum and became involved in relocating most of its collection to the Château de Cheverny in the Loire Valley by August 1939, in the face of a likely German invasion of France. She actually became acting director in the temporary absence of Lantier, with the task of caring for the material that was too big to be moved out of Saint-Germain. Meanwhile, Lantier continued to arrange for her to get a post as assistant conservator with Schaeffer, who offered to give her half his salary so that he could continue his excavations at Ras Schamra (ancient Ugarit) in Syria. She agreed to the proposal as long as she would be allowed to return to correct exam papers at UCD, where she was lecturing part-time, and promising to return to France to work an extra month at Christmas. The plan, however, came to nothing, as she was afraid that her supportive university boss, Roger Chauviré, facing retirement, would be followed by someone less inclined to put up with her itinerant lifestyle.

After the dangerous summer of 1939 working in the French museum, she left for Ireland, but took leave of absence from her UCD post to work in a munitions factory in England, and after the D-Day landings she returned to France to work as an ambulance driver, a skill that she had only recently acquired. Lantier continued throughout the war years to press for her position as museum conservator to be renewed annually. But she was also made secretary of the Vaucher Commission, which was set up to ensure the preservation and restitution of works of art when the war was over, and she had her old friend Geneviève Marsh-Micheli join her team. She went back to the Saint-Germain museum for the last time officially in 1945, the year before Lantier retired. Two years later she had the Department of Archaeology in UCD create a special section for her, dealing with the history of art, but not before she had been awarded the Légion d’Honneur for services rendered to the French nation for all that she had done to save the national collections in the face of Nazi aggression.

M. Olivier’s researches in the Saint-Germain archives show how much the French appreciated Françoise’s work for the museum—Lantier did his utmost to get her established there as deputy director until even after the end of the war. But it was Ireland that finally won her personal tug-of-war between France and Ireland, and ultimately what was France’s loss was Ireland’s inestimable gain. She finally returned home to her native land after she had retired from UCD in 1974, and lived in the house that her mother had left her until she died 35 years ago.

Peter Harbison is Honorary Academic Editor with the Royal Irish Academy.

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