1916: The Trial of Roger Casement

High Treason: The Appeal of Roger Casement Sir John Lavery - © By courtesy of Rosensteil's on behalf of the Estate of Sir John Lavery UK Government Art Collection

High Treason: The Appeal of Roger Casement
by Sir John Lavery
© By courtesy of Rosensteil's on behalf of the Estate of Sir John Lavery UK Government Art Collection

From 2 July
Room 30

A major court painting by Sir John Lavery will go on display at the National Portrait Gallery on 2nd July 2003, depicting the controversial appeal of Roger Casement, the Irish folk hero who was hanged in 1916 for his involvement in the Irish Nationalist revolt in Dublin. This is the first time that the painting has been on public display in the UK.

Lavery's monumental painting records the two days of Roger Casement's appeal against his sentence of death for treason before five judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal and contains over 40 individual portraits. The painting is part of the Government Art Collection and has been temporarily returned to the UK from loan to the King's Inns, Dublin for conservation work.

Born in 1864, Casement was the son of an Irish Protestant father and a Catholic mother and grew up in County Antrim and Liverpool. A renowned human rights campaigner, he was knighted in 1911 for his public services exposing the cruelties practised by European traders in Africa and South America. He retired from the colonial service in 1912 and, always of strong nationalist sympathies, joined the Irish Volunteers the following year, taking up the cause of Irish nationalism.

When the First World War broke out, Casement hoped to obtain German help in winning Irish independence and made his way to Berlin to enlist Irish prisoners of war for service in an Irish rising. In April 1916, the Germans despatched a ship, the Aud, with a cargo of arms to be landed in Kerry for a rising planned for Easter week. Casement followed in a submarine. The Aud was captured and blown up by its crew. Casement was arrested on 20 April 1916 and taken to England, to the Tower of London, to stand trial. He was subsequently found guilty of treason, stripped of his knighthood, and sentenced to be hanged. The Easter Rising in Dublin went ahead on 23 April, and seven days of street fighting ensued in which many were killed.

Many influential people petitioned for a reprieve for Casement. Copies of diaries alleged to be Casement's, recording homosexual practices, were circulated, it is said, by the British government to defuse the campaign for a reprieve. The diaries had an inevitable effect on public opinion. Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison, London on 3 August 1916. His remains were later returned to Ireland and re-interred in Glasnevin Cemetery on 1 March 1965 after a state funeral. The "Black Diaries" were widely believed, particularly in Ireland, to be forgeries but a forensic study conducted in 2002, with the support of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, found them to be genuine.

The painting was commissioned by the presiding judge, Sir Charles John Darling, who invited Irish artist Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) to record the court proceedings. The presence of an artist in court was, and remains, regular practice, the weekly magazines publishing illustrations of court scenes. Commissioning a huge canvas from a society portrait painter was, however, exceptional. The artist had to keep his box of paints hidden below the box as he worked on a sketch. In this final version, not completed until 1931 and worked up in the artist's studio, Casement looks straight out, towards the Jury Box, and thus the viewer becomes both the public and the jury. The painting remained in the studio until Lavery's death in 1941, and was left by him to the nation. It hung first in an office in the Royal Courts of Justice, and in 1950, following the request of Serjeant Sullivan, who had been part of Casement's defence team, it was lent to King's Inns, Dublin.

Lavery's painting will be accompanied by a contextual display of four sketches; Roger Casement by Sir William Rothenstein, Sir John Lavery by Sir Bernard Partridge, Sir Charles Darling by Sir Leslie Ward and Sir Frederick Smith by Robert Stewart Sherriffs.

Lectures and Events

Thursday September 25 1.10pm Free, no tickets required
John Lavery - artist reporter
Professor Kenneth McConkey, Dean of Arts and Social Sciences University of Northumbria, examines the work of artist John Lavery, whose work includes the courtroom scene of the controversial Roger Casement trial of 1916.