Monday, 22 September 2014

Caravaggio and the IRA; Percival Lea-Wilson (1894-1920), Putney Vale Cemetery

Percival Lea-Wilson's memorial plaque on his father's grave
Percival Lea-Wilson was born to a solidly middle class household in Brompton, Kensington in April 1887, 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 was seven; his father was driving his carriage along Exhibition Road when his horse bolted, breaking the reins, colliding  with an oncoming Hanson cab and throwing him into the roadway. He later died of concussion. Percival was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford but his chosen career, in the Royal Irish Constabulary, indicates that he was perhaps not especially academic. He joined the RIC in 1909, initially stationed in Galway. In 1914 he married a girl from County Cork, Marie Ryan, before enlisting in the Royal Irish Regiment and serving on the western front where he was seriously wounded. According to the RIC Magazine he had re-joined the police by March 1916 and was in Dublin in time for the 1916 Easter rising. He was in charge of a group of Republican prisoners at the Rotunda Hospital when the notorious incident that effectively signed his death warrant took place.  One of the prisoners was Tom Clarke, at 59 the oldest man to have taken an active part in the rising and the first of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic. Lea-Wilson forced Clarke to strip naked on the steps of the hospital in front of the other prisoners (who included Michael Collins and Liam Tobin) and the female nursing staff. He then loudly jeered “That old bastard is Commander-in-Chief. He keeps a tobacco shop across the Street. Nice general for your fucking army.”

Lea-Wilson (standing at far right) as photographed for
 the Royal Irish Constabulary Magazine in March 1916.
Four years later the 33 year old Lea-Wilson was a District Inspector and living in the quiet town of Gorey, County Wexford with Marie. On the morning of June 15 1920 Percival left the house dressed in civilian clothes and walked to the RIC barracks in the town. After a few minutes he left the barracks with Constable Alexander O’Donnell, stopped at the station to buy a newspaper and then walked on towards home. A few hundred yards from the house Constable O’Donnell went his own way and Percival strolled on alone, leafing through the paper as he walked. Five armed IRA men were waiting for him on the direct orders of Michael Collins; Frank Thornton, Liam Tobin, both of whom travelled from Dublin, Jack Whelan, Joe McMahon, and Michael McGrath. A sixth man, Michael Sinnott, waited close by in a stolen car. How many guns were used or who fired them is not clear. We know Lea-Wilson was initially floored by two bullets. No doubt to his murderers surprise he got up and tried to run away. Further shots were fired, some hitting him, some hitting a wall behind him but the wounded man only managed to stumble 15 yards before collapsing and dying. Some accounts say a final coup de grace was administered to his head to make sure he really was dead.   

Joe Sweeney, who two years previously at the age of 21 had been elected as a British MP for Sinn Féin, happened to be in the bar of the Wicklow Hotel in Dublin on the evening of June 15. Michael Collins came in and said, “We got the bugger, Joe.”
“What are you talking about?” Sweeney asked.
“Do you remember that first night outside the Rotunda – Lea Wilson?”
“I’ll never forget it,” Sweeney replied.
“Well,” said Collins, “we got him today in Gorey.”

Percival’s widow, Marie, arranged for his body to be brought back to England and buried with his father in Putney Vale cemetery. Marie never remarried but the girl from Cork did decide to stay in Ireland and three or four years after Percival’s murder, when she was in her late thirties, took the bold step of deciding to enrol in Trinity College as a medical student. She graduated in 1928 at the age of 41 and then lived and practiced in Dublin as a paediatrician for the rest of her life, dying in 1971 at the age of 84. There is no doubt that she found it hard to get over Percival’s murder. In her grief she turned to the church for consolation and she found the support provided by a Jesuit priest, Father Finlay of the Leeson Street Jesuit Community particularly comforting. The year following Percival’s murder whilst she was on a trip to Edinburgh Marie had bought a large sixteenth century oil painting that had been hanging in a private home in the city for over a hundred years. The subject probably appealed to her; The Taking Of Christ shows the moment Judas kisses Christ to identify him to the Roman legionnaires waiting to take him prisoner.
Caravaggio - The Taking of Christ
Ten years after she bought the painting Marie probably tired of contemplating its dark themes of death, deceit and betrayal and decided to get rid of it. She presented it to Father Finlay and the Jesuits who hung it in the Leeson Street dining room where it stayed for the next 60 years, literally as part of the furniture, and certainly not the object of especial scrutiny or interest on the part of the masticating clergy. In 1990 Sergio Benedetti a curator and conservator at the National Gallery of Ireland was asked to look at the motley collection of paintings that had been gathered at Leeson Street over the years. There wasn’t much to interest him in the rag, tag and bobtail assemblage of religious images until he was shown Marie Lea-Wilson’s painting. He was told that it was a copy of a Caravaggio by a Dutch disciple of the Italian master but, in his opinion, the picture was simply too good to be a copy. Caravaggio’s original was commissioned by the prolific collector and patron Ciriaco Mattei, a Roman nobleman who died in 1614. The painting remained in the family’s Roman palazzo until the early 1800’s when, down on their luck, they sold it to William Hamilton Nisbet, an obscure British politician who displayed it in his Edinburgh home. This is a large picture, 1.3 by 1.7 metres, and perhaps it is the size that makes it too much trouble to move once it has been hung. It had stayed on the Mattei’s wall for two hundred years and it hung undisturbed in Edinburgh for almost 120 before it was briefly in the possession of Marie Lea-Wilson. The Jesuit’s too showed little inclination to move the massive masterpiece once it had been nailed up until Benedetti had it cleaned and authenticated as the long lost Caravaggio masterpiece.
The picture is now the pride of the Irish National Gallery, prized just as much for its backstory as for its intrinsic merits as a work of art which is just as well; Tom Clarke had to suffer public humiliation, Lea-Wilson to lose his life and his widow to endure a lifetime’s grief before the chain of chance that brought ‘The Taking of Christ’ from Rome to Dublin was complete.


  1. Thankfully Michael Collins sent him to meet his Maker lol x

  2. Great story. For the sake of accuracy, I believe that Lea-Wilson's wife was from Co. Cork and he served in the Royal Irish Regiment.

    1. Thanks Sionnach; I've checked and you are right on both counts, Marie was from Cork and Lea-Percival was in the 18th Royal Irish Regiment.