The Purser family had come to Ireland from Gloucestershire in the eighteenth century. Purser is born in Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) in County Dublin on March 22, 1848. She is raised in Dungarvan, County Waterford, one of the numerous children of Benjamin Purser, a prosperous flour miller and brewer, and his wife Anne Mallet. She is related to Sir Frederic William Burton, RHA (1816-1900), who is a son of Hannah Mallet. Two of her brothers, John and Louis, become professors at Trinity College Dublin. Her niece Olive Purser, daughter of her brother Alfred, is the first woman scholar at Trinity.
At thirteen Purser attends the Moravian school, Institution Evangélique de Montmirail, Switzerland where she learns to speak fluent French and begins painting. In 1873 her father’s business fails and she decides to become a full-time painter. She attends classes at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and joins the Dublin Sketching Club, where she is later appointed an honorary member. In 1874 she distinguishes herself in the National Competition. In 1878 she again contributes to the Royal Hibernian Academy, and for the next fifty years becomes a regular exhibitor, mainly portraits, and shows an average of three works per show.
Purser becomes wealthy through astute investments, particularly in Guinness, for which several of her male relatives have worked over the years. She is very active in the art world in Dublin and is involved in the setting up of the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, persuading the Irish government to provide Charlemont House in Parnell Square to house the gallery.
Purser works mostly as a portraitist. Through her talent and energy, and owing to her friendship with the Gore-Booths, she is very successful in obtaining commissions. When the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland commissions her to portray his children in 1888, his choice reflects her position as the country’s foremost portraitist. Various portraits painted by Purser are held in the National Gallery of Ireland.
Purser finances An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass), a stained glass cooperative, at 24 Upper Pembroke and runs it from its inauguration in 1903 until her retirement in 1940. Michael Healy is the first of a number of distinguished recruit, such as Catherine O’Brien, Evie Hone, Wilhelmina Geddes, Beatrice Elvery and Ethel Rhind. She is determined the stained glass workshop should adhere to true Arts and Crafts philosophy. An Túr Gloine archive is held in the Centre for the Study of Irish Art, National Gallery of Ireland.
Purser does not produce many items of stained glass herself. Most of the stained glass works are painted by other members of the co-operative, presumably under her direction. Two early works are St. Ita (1904) for St. Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea and The Good Shepard (1904) for St. Columba’s College, Dublin. Her last stained glass work is believed to be The Good Shepard and the Good Samaritan (1926) for the Church of Ireland at Killucan, County Westmeath.
Until her death Purser lives for many years in Mespil House, a Georgian mansion with beautiful plaster ceilings on Mespil Road, on the banks of the Grand Canal. Here she is “at home” every Tuesday afternoon to Dublin’s writers and artists. Her afternoon parties are a fixture of Dublin literary life.
Purser dies in Dublin on August 7, 1943 and is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery beside her brothers John and Louis. Mespil House is demolished after her death and developed into apartments.
Purser is the second woman to sit on the Board of Governors and Guardians, National Gallery of Ireland, 1914-1943. She is made an Honorary Member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1890, becoming the first female Associate Member in 1923 and the first female Member in 1924. Also in 1924 she initiates the movement for the launching of the Friends of the National Collection of Ireland. Archives relating to Sarah Purser are housed in the Centre for the Study of Irish Art, National Gallery of Ireland.
(Pictured: Portrait of Sarah Purser by John Butler Yeats, c. 1880–1885)