Sarah Cecilia Harrison: Artist, Social Campaigner and City Councillor, Reviewed

In 1911, soon after the lifting of an archaic restriction that prevented women from standing for county and borough councils, Dublin gained its first elected female councillor.

Much of this pioneer’s contribution to the artistic and political life of Dublin has previously been overlooked, yet her legacy can be seen across Dublin today, her monogram found on many works still on display in prominent buildings throughout the country.

The year recorded beneath her initials may advance with each painting but the monogram stays the same. SCH. Sarah Cecilia Harrison. A single constant in the changing history of an accomplished artist and prominent campaigner for social justice.

In her early twenties, following her studies in the Slade School of Modern Art, Harrison’s craft took her from Brittany to The Hague before circling back to Donegal. Those same initials now graced beautiful portraits of family members and canvases of diverse landscapes, compositions often compared to artists like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Henri-Joseph Harpignies of the Barbizon School.

Similar to the portraits created by Dutch greats like Frans Hals, Harrison’s use of dark backgrounds and dark clothing focuses attention on the sitter’s features, giving an “intimacy and timelessness” to her portraits. Her reputation as a fine portrait painter quickly spread.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, her path crossed with Hugh Lane, a fellow London resident with a similar background to Harrison. And here are those initials again, appearing on a letter to the Irish Times in 1904. It formed part of an effort to raise money for the purchase of a modern art collection from the estate of recently deceased Scottish entrepreneur James Staats Forbes.

A further letter would appear in the same newspaper the following year, with the likes of Lady Gregory’s, Jane Barlow’s, and W.B. Yeats’ signatures joining Harrison’s. It was the beginning of a dynamic campaign to set up the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin, in which Harrison would play a vital role.

Aside from her artistic commitments, Harrison was a leading figure in the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA), attending a number of major suffrage protests. She represented the group at the significant 1911 Coronation March, alongside other important figures in the movement.

At a gathering to salute Anna Haslam’s first vote in a general election, “the culmination of more than fifty years’ work” as a major figure in the suffrage movement in Ireland, Harrison was part of the procession that accompanied Haslam to the polling station.

Support from the IWSLGA, as well as many diverging groups, flooded in when Harrison stood for election. A key skill of Harrisons seemed to be her ability to work alongside many political parties and across many different activist groups without compromising her core beliefs. The Irish Women’s Franchise League once stated that Harrison “sets efficiency above party, and is entitled to the vote of every man and woman, Unionist, Nationalist, or Labour, who sets principle above party”.

In office, she would campaign on issues affecting women, children, the poor and the unemployed. As a city councillor, four issues stood at the top of her agenda. “Reforming the Corporation’s Distress Committee, tackling the tenement crisis, promoting the modern art gallery”, as well as highlighting the heavy-handed actions of the police during the Dublin Lockout in 1913.

Harrison’s constituency spanned D’Olier Street to Fishamble Street, Grafton Street and South George’s Street, much of which was home to tenement dwellers. She used her position to call out corruption and demand better living conditions for the poor.

A tough ask for any councillor, considering that prominent individuals like Sir Charles Cameron, then medical officer for health, was insisting “it was pointless to give proper accommodation to the poorest class as they would not know what to do with it”.

Harrison’s commitment didn’t stop on leaving Dublin Corporation. In 1934, at the age of 71, she was still working for the poor of Dublin. Dublin City Council has released a collection of essays on the life of Sarah Cecilia Harrison, with contributions from Hannah Baker, Senia Pašeta, Ciarán Wallace and Margarita Cappock (contributor and editor).

A fascinating read, it delves into numerous facets of Harrison’s life and acknowledges her many achievements as activist and councillor. Aside from being a rewarding read, I’d also highly recommend the book for the bounty of beautiful images of the artist’s work throughout. There was momentous change in Ireland during Harrison’s lifetime. The campaign for home rule in Ireland. The push for the rights for women. The improvement of workers’ entitlements. Sarah Cecilia Harrison was a significant player in all.

You’ll find her monogram on the portraits of influencers and pioneers of the time, people like Connolly Norman and Francis Sheehy Skeffington. Norman was medical superintendent to the Richmond district asylum.

An innovative and compassionate individual, he worked to replace asylums with specialised health facilities. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and her husband Francis were staunch activists for the suffrage movement.

In the posthumous painting that Harrison gifted to her friend Hanna, Francis wears a “Votes for Women” badge. The gifting of this portrait not only shows the high regard Harrison felt toward their campaigning, it also says a lot about Harrison’s generosity, as well as showcasing her skill at telling a story through her work.

Sarah Cecilia’s Harrison’s initials can be found on portraits in the Royal Academy, the Royal Hibernian Academy and even the office of the taoiseach in Government Buildings.

This body of work is more than mere proof of a truly gifted artist. It serves as a reminder of an exceptional woman who has done so much for the city of Dublin.

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Daniel Seery: Daniel Seery is a writer from Dublin. A regular contributor to RTÉ’s Arena, his work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. His stage play Eviction was a winner of the Shadow of the Rising competition in 2016, and his debut novel A Model Partner, originally published by Liberties Press, is due to be released in the US by publisher Melville House.

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