By Liam Nolan
It’s widely acknowledged that if you are born into a big family, you soon learn to fight your corner. If you fail to do so, you could easily become a punch-bag. Sarah Purser never became a punch-bag, and she was born into a very big family (11) in Kingstown (later rechristened Dún Laoghaire).
Daughter of flour miller-turned-brewer Benjamin Purser, she grew up in Dungarvan, County Waterford. Her family were well-to-do, Protestant, and middle class. But when Benjamin’s business collapsed leaving him no longer financially able to fund Sarah’s education, he took the emigrant ship.
Sarah had a bright intelligence, an acerbic wit, and artistic talent. Educated in Switzerland, Dublin and Paris, it was with financial help from one of her brothers that she was able to refine her painterly talent in the French capital.
There she mixed with the Impressionists, and became friendly with Degas and Berthe Morisot. Long before networking came into vogue, she practised it, using her links with people to get painting commissions. She networked strenuously, shrewdly, and without embarrassment.
In Dublin she never let up, and was engaged to paint portraits of many prominent people, such as Douglas Hyde, Maud Gonne, the bishops of Limerick, Clogher, and Belfast, W.B. Yeats, Jack B. Yeats, and Sir Henry and Lady Gore-Booth.
Purser herself said she “went through the aristocracy like the measles,” and John Butler Yeats said of her that she was “a portrait painting peddler moving from one magnificent castle to the other.”
None of that fazed her. She was well able to face down anyone unwise enough to attempt to belittle or ridicule her. In any event she was soon able to (as 20th century phrase-makers would put it) “laugh all the way to the bank.” She became wealthy, very wealthy.
Incidentally, the record sum for a Sarah Purser painting was the £200,000 paid for her double portrait of Constance and Eva Gore-Booth, which was auctioned by Christies of London in 2003. As against that, after shelling in Dublin during the 1916 Rising destroyed seven of Sarah’s paintings, she later made a claim for £270 to cover their loss; she was awarded £201-9s-0.
When painting portraits, she liked to talk at length with her sitters. She was fond of having discussions with people whose intellect she respected and admired. One belief about her was that she preferred to do portraits of men, and that that was why those paintings came alive, while her portraits of women were considered mundane.