Review of Margarita Cappock (ed.) Sarah Cecilia Harrison: Artist, Campaigner, and City Councillor by Cathryn McWilliams

Review of Cappock, Margarita, ed. Sarah Cecilia Harrison: Artist, Campaigner, and City Councillor. Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2022.

This sumptuously produced edited volume and catalogue bands together the diverse strands of the life of Sarah Cecilia Harrison (1863–1941) in an attempt to bring her “out of the shadows” (p. 2). Fittingly published by Dublin City Council, it opens with a laudatory Foreword by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alison Gilliland. The main body of the text is comprised of four thematic essays, each of which offer a unique insight into Harrison and her world. 

The book’s editor, art historian and curator Dr Margarita Cappock, provides an extensive first chapter which acts as a biographical overview of the artist’s life and works. With the support of high-quality images, Cappock guides the reader as if through an art gallery, pointing out portraits of key figures along the way, and in doing so, brings them to life. Our tour also traces Harrison’s artwork from her earliest family portraits and landscapes to her later studies of notable Irish personalities such as her great grand-uncle Henry Joy McCracken and Michael Collins (the latter of which currently hangs in the private office of the Taoiseach in Government Buildings). Cappock charts her subject’s artistic travels through France and Italy, granting us an insight into the influences on Harrison’s style and techniques. 

Due attention is also given to Harrison’s role in the campaign to establish a modern art gallery in Dublin; a scheme devised by art dealer and collector Sir Hugh Lane (1875–1915). As firm friends and allies, the nature of their relationship serves as a point of interest, particularly given Harrison’s later claim (after Lane’s death) that they had been engaged to be married. Refreshingly, Cappock remains impartial on the matter, admitting that “the whole question remains perplexing and inconclusive and Harrison’s reasons are elusive.” (p. 79) Regardless, her commitment to the foundation of what is now the Hugh Lane Gallery is finally given genuine recognition. It must also be mentioned that this meticulously researched chapter is supported throughout by thorough and insightful footnotes which are a joy to read. 

In the second chapter, Harrison’s seven-year studentship at London’s Slade School of Fine Art is explored in detail by doctoral candidate Hannah Baker (whose thesis focuses on Harrison’s life and career). Under the tutelage of Alphonse Legro (1837–1911), Harrison was granted “the opportunity to train on an equal footing to her male counterparts” (p. 96). Influenced by her teacher’s methods, Harrison was awarded numerous prizes and became part of a network of artists who shared a similar approach. Indeed, it is astonishing to learn that “as Harrison cultivated a technique based on a strict and exacting contour, much like her teacher, critics compared her work to that of Holbein” (p. 101). Baker’s efforts to shed light on Harrison’s impact on both the London and Dublin art world are truly commendable. 

The extent of Harrison’s involvement in the suffrage campaign is diligently documented by Professor Senia Pašeta in the book’s penultimate chapter. Her senior role in the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA) saw Harrison representing the society at the 1911 Women’s Coronation Procession in London. Although Harrison “eschewed militancy” (p. 112) in the movement, she remained sympathetic to those who harnessed it and maintained friendships with distinguished suffragettes such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. This chapter does much to re-situate Harrison at the heart of the Irish suffrage movement.

Finally, Dr Ciarán Wallace’s essay charts Harrison’s political activism across three decades, detailing her rise to become Dublin’s first female councillor for a period of three years (between 1912 and 1915) while also emphasising Harrison’s tireless devotion to the city’s unemployed and vulnerable, regardless of political affiliation. Indeed, she drew a “diverse coalition” (p. 136) behind her candidacy, appealing as she did “across social, political and confessional lines for broad cooperation” (p. 136). Her understanding of Dublin’s tenement problem allowed her to propose “nuanced solutions” (p. 145), while her stellar attendance at committee meetings enabled her to accomplish actual change. What emerges from this chapter is a picture of a scrupulous and indefatigable humanitarian, not unlike her great grand-aunt Mary Ann McCracken of whom she was so proud. 

Following on from the biographical section we find an extensive Chronology which might have been better situated alongside the Family Tree at the book’s opening, as it seems somewhat peripheral here. A substantial Catalogue of Works presents each extant artwork in the form of images and accompanying detailed information. A further sub-section accounts for 187 untraced works in impressive detail. Evidently this is the result of rigorous research which has the potential to assist in the recovery of some of these items in future. 

This volume will appeal to art historians as well as those with interests in Irish women’s political activism, feminism and suffrage. As a work of biography it is also extremely valuable from the perspective of Irish life writing. As a researcher within epistolary studies, I was particularly delighted to learn of the recent discovery of a cache of 400 letters written to Harrison from prominent cultural figures. For those seeking further insight into Harrison’s life, Hannah Baker’s forthcoming PhD thesis will be eagerly awaited. One can only hope that this immaculately-produced book — which is a kind of art object in itself — will provide a model for others to follow, and that other deserving figures will benefit from the diligence displayed here. 

Cathryn McWilliams is an Assistant Professor in English at the University of South-Eastern Norway. In 2021 she completed her PhD thesis on the letters and legacy of Belfast’s Mary Ann McCracken (1770–1866) and is currently in the process of adapting the letter transcriptions into a published edition with the Irish Manuscripts Commission.