The six of them

August 29, 1997

The intensity and individualism of genius itself could never wash out of the world's memories the general impression of Willie and Lily and Lolly and Jack, names cast backwards and forwards in a unique sort of comedy of Irish wit, gossip, satire, family quarrels and family pride." Willie is W.B. Yeats, Lily is Susan Mary Yeats, Lolly is Elizabeth Corbet Yeats and Jack is Jack B. Yeats. They are the four surviving children of John Butler Yeats and they form, as it were, the meat in the sandwich between their father (hereafter known as JBY) and WB's daughter Anne who, on the evidence of this book, sadly brings this extraordinary Irish artistic dynasty to an end. The quotation is from G.K. Chesterton's autobiography and it ends with the words: "I knew the family more or less as a whole in those days", and refers to the Yeats family's impoverished, somewhat Bohemian existence in Bedford Park, London in the late 1880s and early 1890s.

Chesterton's description is cited by Hilary Pyle in her invaluable guide to the richness of the family's contribution to Irish art andculture. As far as Jack is concerned, Pyle is the doyenne of all who have studied him and, to employ an old but still sometimes worthwhile cliche, what Pyle does not know about Jack B. Yeats is probably not worth knowing.

She is, however, not a single-issue fanatic and while, inevitably, Jack's art dominates this book devoted to the holdings of the National Gallery of Ireland, which will in a few years' time be housed in their own separate Yeats Museum in Merrion Square, she is the first writer to deal with the whole family's visual oeuvre. She does not, quite properly, deal with WB's writing, since that is not part of her remit, although she is clearly well informed.

But Pyle does deal with WB's painterly efforts in their due place and her extended captions, really miniature essays, to the copious and large illustrations for what is in effect the catalogue of the Dublin National Gallery's magnificent Yeats family collection, are erudite, stylishly written and wide ranging in their cultural and historical framework and read like the best kind of programme notes in a concert or opera brochure.

John Butler Yeats (1830-1922) did spectacularly well at Trinity, Dublin, failed to enter the Church for which he had been intended, and, instead, chose the law and was admitted to the bar at the King's Inns. A compulsive artistic rather than legal draughtsman, he would let his forensic mind wandersufficiently in court to sketch - or rathercaricature - his fellow practitioners.

One of his subjects, a humourless defence counsel, failed to appreciate his efforts and JBY, realising that art rather than the law was his real vocation, set off for London to learn and to practise. He used a small,inherited private income to pay his way (he was already a father), at Heatherley's Art School and was encouraged by the legendary illustrator Richard Doyle.

He eventually made a decent living as a painter, being quite willing to do posthumous portraits for loving families and institutions, working from photographs or drawings. He was sometimes exploited by Hugh Lane, who set him to compete with the younger William Orpen, and even by John Quinn, the great Irish-American Maecenas of the western world. Many of his portraits, whether posthumous or from the life, are fine records of some of the key figures in Irish history, particularly that of home rule which he and his children, most notably WB, so devoutly and fiercely espoused.

Those of John O'Leary, Douglas Hyde, A.E. Isaac Butt, Lady Gregory, George Moore and Hugh Lane, stand out. Above all, as his endless letters to his children show, he was a devoted if perhaps over-admonitory father, and the many loving, but still acute pictures of his children help to make this engaging book an invaluable family album for those bitten by the Yeats bug.

Susan Mary Yeats, JBY's and Susan Pollexfen's elder daughter, was born in 1866 and, until her death in 1948, was the family archivist, She called herself Lily and was apprenticed as an embroiderer to WilliamMorris's daughter, May, at Kelmscott House. A founder member in 1902 of the Dun Emer Press, she and her sister broke away to found the Cuala Press which, for several decades, published, in beautiful editions, much of the best of the Irish literary renaissance.

Her sister, Elizabeth Corbet (1868-1940), was also a William Morris-inspired arts and crafts devotee and was a notable printer andpublisher. Her authors included AE, Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, Oliver St John Gogarty, Katherine Tynan and many others. She was also a gifted printmaker and watercolourist and doubtless, if Jack had been less of a genius, more of Lily and Lolly's own art would have been produced and survived.

It is not Pyle's partiality that causes this book to be dominated by Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957). He gets 110 out of the 220 pages devoted to the works in the entire Yeats collection. Nothing so well expresses the huge gulf between JBY and Jack as painters as the Armory show of 1913, which brought the avant garde to New York City and the United States with such powerful effect that students at the Chicago Art Institute burned Matisse in effigy. JBY was not selected but Jack showed several paintings there; the ubiquitous Quinn was one of his patrons and Jack produced an exquisite bookplate for him.

The artistic influence of father upon son is, in my view, negligible, a lack which Pylesuggests is due to his upbringing away from home for several of his formative years, in Sligo with his Pollexfen relatives. Jack, who could on occasion be quite gnomic, replied to the inevitable question why he became an artist with the words: "I painted because I am the son of a painter".

If JBY expressed his love of Ireland by lecturing to the Sinn Fein Society of New York and by painting his country's favourite sons and daughters, Jack expressed his equally passionate, perhaps even stronger love with a prodigious output of drawings, watercolours, and oil paintings of Ireland at work and play.

Instead of JBY's formal portraits there were Jack's miraculous character studies of Irish types, indeed archetypes. Perhaps the most brilliantly observed are the characters he did for George A. Birminghan's "Irishmen All". These paintings give you the very essence of "The priest", "The farmer", "The greater official", "The Exile from Erin", and so on. Eschewing caricature, they express their humanity as convincingly as their evident nationality.

Above all, in his early and middle years, he gave us, influenced by his friends JohnMasefield and J.M. Synge, fishermen, sailors, jockeys, boxers, bookies, drinkers and all the fallible but endearing features of the real, as opposed to the stage, Irishman.

Given these interests, it is not surprising that Jack had an entirely benevolent obsession with horses, which he painted with an almost demonic skill. Pyle remarks on the parallels here with Degas, with whom Jack sharedcertain philosophical precepts about art. Degas: "The imagination collaborates with the memory." Jack: "No one creates ... The artist assembles memories."

There is no better description of Jack's heavy, later, impasto works. They draw on memories of mythology, history, the theatre, the circus, Dublin life in tram, pub, street and Liffey. At times reminiscent of Oskar Kokoschka, who knew and greatly admired him, paintings such as "About to write a Letter", "A Morning in a City", "In memory of Boucicault and Bianconi", "Men of Destiny", "Many Ferries", and "For the Road" are among Jack's masterpieces and the undoubted jewels of the Yeats collection and this book.

Artistic league tables are always pernicious, particularly in the era of the Turner prize, but if they are ever valid then, no matter how subjective the view, Jack B. Yeats is established as Ireland's greatest painter as surely as brother Willie is her greatest poet.

The book is not complete without WB himself (1865-1939). At his father's benign insistence, he studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in Kildare Street, Dublin, where he was taught by JBY. But he broke intellectually from his father who could not bear Willie's obsessions with mysticism, symbolism and spiritualism so wonderfully described in Roy Foster's recent biography. This book reproduces some very competent watercolour and pastel sketches, the best, not surprisingly, being of Lady Gregory's Coole House.

Alas, the end of the artistic as opposed to biological line is Anne Yeats, born in 1919. After a spell as assistant to the notable stage designer, Tanya Moseiwitch, at the the Abbey Theatre, she became the Abbey's chief designer, doing sets and costumes for plays by WB, Lady Gregory, Shaw and Austin Clarke. She then concentrated on painting, had a major retrospective in 1995, and is responsible for the Jack Yeats archive being part of the National Gallery's collection.

This book is a scholarly and a visual delight for all students of this richly fertile family.

Tom Rosenthal is a publisher and critic and author of The Art of Jack B. Yeats.

Yeats: Portrait of an Artistic Family

Author - Hilary Pyle
ISBN - 1 85894 040 0
Publisher - Merrell Holberton
Price - £35.00
Pages - 304

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