One of the featured articles in our recent magazine was a piece on The Taking of Christ painting by Caravaggio and the strong local connection to County Meath. Written by Noel French of The Meath Heritage Centre it focuses in on the Lea-Wilsons who lived in the Glebe House in Killeen, Dunsany. The article is below. The Caravaggio exhibition runs in the National Gallery from February to May.
Caravaggio and Killeen – The Connection
A person, who lived in Meath, bought a painting in Scotland, which turned out to be a long lost masterpiece now hanging in the National Gallery of Ireland.
Percival Lea-Wilson was born in 1887, in Kensington, London, son of Samuel Lea-Wilson. Percival was born to a solidly middle class household, his grandfather, Samuel Wilson, had been Lord Mayor of London in 1838 and his father was a stockbroker. The family received a serious setback in 1894 when Percival’s father was killed in a carriage accident. His mother was a sister of the architect, Charles Fitzroy Doll, who designed the dining room of the Titanic. Percival was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, where he studied history. He joined the Irish police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1910, initially being stationed in Galway. Promoted to District Inspector in 1911 Lea-Wilson, served first in Charleville, Co. Cork, then Woodford, Co. Galway and from there he was transferred to Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath.
While in Charleville Lea-Wilson fell in love with Marie Ryan, the daughter of a local Catholic solicitor, who was against the friendship. After being posted to Dunshaughlin Lea-Wilson wrote Marie letters expressing his love and moaning about his conditions. One of his letters, written from the Fingall Arms Hotel, Dunshaughlin, on 13 October 1913 - reads:
“This place is horrid, dirty, miserable. I went to bed after going out to see a patrol miserable. I got up this morning worse. Your letter from Cork was very cheering. I have since been out and - they have raised some ink - inspected two stations, where an extraordinary state of inefficiency prevails, which once more reduced me to misery, and the car is wrong… I have to take the car to Dublin for repairs this afternoon.
I have another letter from your father. I can't read one word of it but it appears to be about horses.
I am very worried about you.
I am very worried about you.
Your loving Val.”
Lea-Wilson married Marie on 27th January 1914 at Charleville. The local D.I., Mr Baldwin, was in charge of a party of police who formed an arch of swords from the Church door to the carriages. The celebrations took place at the principal local hotel. Constables Daughton and O'Shea added to the entertainment by singing the latest popular songs while Constable Neylan played the piano.
The Lea-Wilsons settled at the Glebe House in Killeen, Dunsany. Lea-Wilson played cricket with the local gentlemen at Dunsany Castle. At the outbreak of the war Lea-Wilson joined the Royal Irish Regiment as a Captain. Sent to France as a musketry instructor he served on the Western Front where he was seriously wounded. According to the RIC Magazine Lea-Wilson returned to Dublin early in 1916 and re-joined the police in March 1916.
His mother was relieved that Lea-Percival was not anywhere near Ashbourne during the Rising in 1916 and wrote to Marie – “What a terrible time of anxiety you must have been passing through. How merciful that Val was no longer at Ashbourne!”
Lea-Wilson was actually in Dublin at the time of the Easter Rising and saw the rebellion as a “monstrous betrayal” of the Empire. After the surrender of the rebels Lea-Wilson was placed in command of 250 captives from the GPO and Four Courts at the front of the Rotunda Hospital. Lea-Wilson forced Tom Clarke to strip naked on the steps of the hospital in front of the other prisoners and the female nursing staff. He then taunted the prisoners shouting: “That old bastard is Commander-in-Chief. He keeps a tobacco shop across the street. Nice general for your f***ing army.” According to witnesses, who saw Lea-Wilson mistreat the rebels, he was intoxicated at time.
Volunteer Liam Tobin described his experience that Saturday night at the Rotunda Green.
“In charge of the enemy forces there was a Captain Lea-Wilson, who was dressed in the usual military uniform, but wore a smoking cap with a fancy tassel hanging out of it. He kept walking round and round, stopping now and again to speak to his soldiers, saying whom do you consider worst, the Boshes or the Sinn Feiners? And of course they always answered that we were worst. With the number of us lying in the small area of grass we were cramped for space, and it was damp and uncomfortable so that I got a bad cramp in my legs. As Lea-Wilson was passing, Piaras Beaslai said to him "There's a young fellow here who is not well" explaining what was wrong and asking if I could stand up. Lea-Wilson said "no let the so-and-so stay where he is".
“I remember that evening that those of us who wanted to relieve ourselves had to do it lying on the grass alongside our comrades. There was nowhere to go and we had to use the place where we lay. As well as I can remember a number of our men, including Tom Clarke were, during that time, brought to the steps of the Rotunda Hospital and were searched. Some people say they were stripped in the process and if my memory is reliable at all, it is my impression that this did happen. Lea-Wilson was responsible for having them stripped as he was responsible for whatever ill treatment was received there. I know that when he refused to allow me to stand up I looked at him and I registered a vow to myself that I would deal with him at some time in the future.”
His wife, Marie, never believed that her husband had maltreated the prisoners.
In 1917 Lea-Wilson was appointed District Inspector in Gorey. On the morning of 15 June 1920 Lea-Wilson left the house dressed in civilian clothes and walked to the RIC barracks in the town. After a few minutes he left the barracks, stopped at the station to buy a newspaper and then walked on towards home. Five armed IRA men were waiting for him on the direct orders of Michael Collins. The group included Liam Tobin who had watched Lea-Wilson dis-respect the prisoners in 1916. A sixth man waited close by in a stolen car. Lea-Wilson was initially hit by two bullets and was knocked to the ground. He managed to get up and tried to run away. More shots were fired, Lea-Wilson collapsed and died. Some accounts say a final bullet was administered to his head to ensure he was dead.
The car and its occupants fled the scene. It was denied that the killing had anything to do with revenge for the ill treatment of the prisoners in 1916 and that Lea-Wilson was targeted for his role as head officer for the police in the area.
Lea-Wilson’s remains were interred in Putney Vale Cemetery, London, where his father was buried. The grave has a bronze plaque, which mentions his assassination in Gorey. Before his widow left Gorey, Marie commissioned the renowned stained glass artist, Harry Clarke, to create a window in Christ Church in her husband's memory. The window depicts Saint Stephen, the first martyred saint, in blue, purple and magenta robes. An angel holds a banner with Saint Stephen’s final words: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”.
Marie never fully recovered from her husband’s murder and from time to time was in great distress but she began a new life, went to study medicine at TCD, graduating in 1928 at the age of forty-one, one of only three women in her class. Joining the staff of Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital she became a well-known paediatrician. Marie lived and practiced in Dublin as a paediatrician for the rest of her life, dying in 1971 at the age of eighty-four. She was buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.
Marie, in her grief, turned to the church for consolation and she found support from a Jesuit priest, Father Thomas Finlay of the Leeson Street Community. The year following Lea-Wilson’s murder whilst she was on a trip to Edinburgh Marie purchased a large sixteenth century oil painting that had been hanging in a private home in the city for over a hundred years for the sum of £8. The subject probably appealed to her; “The Taking of Christ” shows the moment Judas kisses Christ to identify him to the Roman soldiers waiting to take him prisoner. Marie brought the painting home to Ireland, and in 1924 she sent it to cabinetmakers and furniture restorers; James Hicks in Dublin’s Lower Pembroke Street for repairs, possibly to the frame. In 1934 Marie decided to gift the painting to Father Finlay and the Jesuits who hung it in the Leeson Street dining room. In 1990 Sergio Benedetti, a curator and conservator at the National Gallery of Ireland, was asked to look at the Jesuit’s collection of paintings. When he was shown the painting he was told that it was a copy of a Caravaggio by a Dutch disciple of the Italian master. Caravaggio’s, original was commissioned by Ciriaco Mattei, a Roman nobleman who died in 1614.
The painting remained in the family’s Roman palazzo until the early 1800’s when they sold it to William Hamilton Nisbet, who displayed it in his Edinburgh home. The lost Caravaggio had been discussed and sought since 1943 and in the 1990s two Italian art students traced the painting from Rome to Edinburgh. Benedetti had the painting cleaned and authenticated as the long lost Caravaggio masterpiece. When the painting was handed over to the National Gallery on indefinite loan on behalf of the Irish Jesuits at a public ceremony in 1993, it was presented to the Chairperson of the Gallery’s Board, Dr. William Finlay, who was the grandnephew of Father Thomas Finlay to whom Marie Lea -Wilson gave the painting. “The Taking of Christ” now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.
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