High Treason: passion and politics

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2010), Volume 18

Sir John Lavery’s High Treason—a foundational instance of shared history? (UK Government Art Collection)

Sir John Lavery’s High Treason—a foundational instance of shared history? (UK Government Art Collection)

In recent months, coordinated public statements concerning Ireland’s looming decade of commemoration, uttered by Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British Prime Minister David Cameron, have referred to the need to acknowledge a ‘shared history’. After a century of conflict and compromise the ‘temporary’ solution of partition has become a fixture, and with it contradictory and oppositional versions of what actually happened. The political challenge of the next decade will be to commemorate the chain of centenaries without arousing division and conflict. Anyone wishing to understand the genesis of ‘shared history’ might usefully pay a visit to this exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery. Sensitively managed by historian Sinéad McCoole, the exhibition assembles portraits and paintings of key statesmen and events involved in the negotiation of conflict between 1916 and 1922.


Towards the end of his life, Lavery bequeathed half of his collection of Irish political paintings and portraits to the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery (Ulster Museum) and the other half to the Hugh Lane. The convergence of these collections conjures one of the most stunning confrontations between two violently opposed political outlooks. Lavery, a Belfast-born Catholic, had privileged access to the inner circles of both Britain’s imperial ruling class and to Ireland’s revolutionary leadership. His wife and muse, Hazel, taught Winston Churchill how to paint and grew close to both Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins during the treaty negotiations.


Exhibited in a gallery for the first time in Ireland is Lavery’s monumental rendition of High Treason, depicting Roger Casement’s unsuccessful appeal against the verdict that led to his execution. Owing to his friendship with the presiding judge, Lord Darling, Lavery was permitted to sit in court and interpret the moment for posterity. His initial (smaller) sketch in oils, painted in situ, is also on display. A comparison of the original study and the completed painting reveal important differences. Most apparent is the omission in the larger work of the public gallery. A sense of suffocation is heightened by painting out the skylight windows. The benches of lawyers and judges staring from beneath the parapets of legal books and documents, surrounded by rows of dutiful-looking men standing upright and silent, mirror the trenches of the Western Front.


Key to the painting

Key to the painting

For those unfamiliar with the bitter, divisive and ruthless shenanigans bedevilling Casement’s trial, the painting can appear staged and overcrowded. ‘Learn the secret of this man, and you have learnt the whole secret of Ireland’, commented Shaw Desmond in The drama of Sinn Féin (1923). Lavery’s work can be interpreted as a gateway into divining this secret. His impressions encrypt the tensions, vendettas and seditious undercurrents. He articulates with oil paint what was inexpressible in words. High Treason does for the interpretation of Hiberno-British relations of 1916 what Velazquez’s Las Meninas achieves for artistic perspective.


Roger Casement’s phantasmic face stares out from the centre of the painting. Above him a clock is fixed ominously at the Faustian hour, five to twelve. But whose soul is about to be claimed? Will it be the prisoner in the dock, or a judicial system prepared to use every dirty trick in the book to ensure that their man hangs?
Most attention in the court is focused on Serjeant A. M. Sullivan, Casement’s defence lawyer, who, even in a wig, looks strikingly like the accused man’s doppelgänger. To his immediate right sits Artemus Jones. Next to him is the amicus curia, J. H. Morgan, a barrister and academic with specialist knowledge of the Irish constitution. In 1915 Morgan investigated German atrocities and went on to represent the British government at the Nuremburg trials in 1945. His much-quoted (and commonly misattributed) comment that ‘Irish history is a thing for Irishmen to forget and Englishmen to remember’ succinctly reflects the dilemma of Casement’s own relevance to the past.


The exhibition of High Treason in a room on its own also allows for a much closer inspection of the facial expressions of the protagonists than has hitherto been possible. Here historical orthodoxy is discreetly subverted by Lavery. The prosecution counsel, congregated in the lower right-hand side of the canvass, appear shamefaced and defeated. The Unionist hard-liner F. E. ‘Galloper’ Smith (Lord Birkenhead) stares blindly towards the bench, unyielding and indomitable. He purposefully ignores a book shown to him by Sir Archibald Bodkin, the director of public prosecutions.



In contrast, Casement’s defence counsel—sitting at an oak table in front of the prisoner—appear animated and engaged. The thinning hairline of the solicitor George Gavan Duffy obscures the face of the American attorney M. F. Doyle. At the far end of the bench, closest to Casement, sit three women in colourful, wide-brimmed hats. One of them is Mrs Gavan Duffy; another is the faithful cousin of the accused, Gertrude Parry (née Bannister). The third woman is the activist Ada McNeill, another loyal supporter. Two principal legal antagonists involved in the trial, Gavan Duffy and Lord Birkenhead, would meet again in 1921 on opposite sides of the treaty negotiations. Was there still unfinished business lingering from their first encounter?



Understandably, neither the British nor Irish states felt comfortable about accepting ownership of High Treason. From 1950 the painting hung in the marble stairwell in the King’s Inns, Dublin, gathering dust. In 2003, shortly after the lower left-hand corner of the canvas had been vandalised, the picture returned briefly to London and underwent repair, restoration and temporary exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
It is now widely acknowledged that Casement’s trial was more akin to a Stalinist show trial: less an act of due process and more about the savage battle for broken hearts and unquiet minds, ravaged by the insanities of war and rebellion. If his endeavours investigating crimes against humanity in the Congo and Amazon have been revisited in recent years, the elucidation of his last months remains a travesty of historical justice, persistently unsettled by the disfiguring deployment of propaganda and misinformed posturing.


For this reason alone, Lavery’s intervention is more than merely a picturesque insight into the confrontation between British power and Irish resistance. The interpretation of High Treason should be claimed as a foundational instance of shared history, an event that belongs as much with the apologists of the British Empire as with the hagiographers of modern Ireland or the defenders of unionism. In years to come, the success of commemorating ‘shared history’ might be measured by how far inconvenient histories such as this one—denied, marginalised and confused by all sides for so long—can be constructively recovered, integrated and, in due course, transcended.  HI

Angus Mitchell will give a lecture on High Treason at the Hugh Lane Gallery on Sunday 10 October 2010 at 1.30pm.


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