• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Fabulous Yeats Boys

Jack Yeats

by Bruce Arnold
Yale University Press, 418 pp., $45.00

On May 17, 1916, John Butler Yeats in New York wrote to his favorite daughter, Lily, in Dundrum:

So Lord Justice Holmes is dead. Several years long ago he dined with me when we lived near Sandymount. A few days before I left Dublin for London in 1867 he invited myself and four others to his poor little lodgings in Nelson Street, and all the men except myself became Judges of the Supreme Court in Ireland—one was judge in Jamaica—with great incomes and carriages and property—and except Hugh Holmes all died long ago and are forgotten except in the fond memory of their children and grandchildren. Am I not entitled to think myself the successful man among them? At any rate I am inclined to think that any one of them would have bartered away all his honours for my length of days—even if they did not have my brilliant offspring, yourself included.1

He should not have added “yourself included,” a demeaning afterthought. Much as he cared for his daughters Lily and Lolly, he knew that neither of them was to be compared for brilliance with his sons Jack and William. His daughters belong to the history of cottage industries in Ireland. Lily, trained in embroidery, ran Dun Emer Industries; Lolly, skilled in hand-press printing, was mainly responsible for the Cuala Press: it issued elegant books, most of them books of W.B. Yeats’s poetry as they arrived and before they were commercially published. Sometimes the sisters worked together, but more often and happily apart. WBY interfered with their arrangements, often to good effect. Lolly also taught art and published three guidebooks to the practice of brushwork. Both sisters were crossed in love, Lily by J.M. Synge, Lolly by a don of Trinity College, Louis Purser. Lolly was thought to be incipiently mad and even when quiet she was difficult to get on with. Lily disliked her, and hated living in her vicinity. Neither of them married. In the first chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses Buck Mulligan, talking to Haines, ridicules both sisters:

…That’s folk, he said very earnestly, for your book, Haines. Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind.

They are lampooned again, many chapters later:

To be printed and bound at the Druiddrum press by two designing females. Calf covers of pissedon green. Last word in art shades.

John Butler Yeats was born on March 16, 1839, in Tullylish, County Down. His father was rector of the local Church of Ireland. JBY (as I’ll call him) got a decent education, culminating in a degree from Trinity College, Dublin. On September 10, 1863, he committed the error of marrying Susan Pollexfen of Sligo. He should not have married. She should not have married him. He intended a career in law and completed his legal studies to the extent of being called to the Bar in January 1866. But in June 1867, and despite having a wife and two children to support, he gave up law and set off for London to study art and make himself a portrait painter. Wife and children were lodged in her parents’ house in Sligo, to begin with, and later dragged back and forth between London, Dublin, and Sligo in a doomed effort to sustain the financial demands of JBY’s career in painting, conversation, and the aesthetic life. Susan was nearly always unhappy, and for good reason. Her husband preferred talking to painting, and he regarded the claims of social life as stronger than the duty of supporting a family. Between June 13, 1865, and August 29, 1875, Susan gave birth to six children, one of whom died in infancy, another at the age of three. Two strokes in 1887 and another in the mid-1890s virtually removed her from social life. She died suddenly on January 3, 1900, at the age of fifty-eight from “general paralysis.”

In Reveries over Childhood and Youth WBY recalled her when “her mind had gone in a stroke of paralysis and she had found, liberated at last from financial worry, perfect happiness feeding the birds at a London window.”2 On May 11, 1908, Yeats told his lover Mabel Dickinson that “my mother was so long ill, so long fading out of life, that the last fading out of all made no noticeable change in our lives.” But she had kept alive Yeats’s sense of Sligo, and of every value his father despised: legend, folklore, the world of ghosts and spirits, “stories that Homer might have told.” It was Susan who kept in Yeats’s mind images of the old pagan Ireland from which he summoned a new, antithetical Ireland to come forth. Susan’s death made another change. It enabled JBY to set off on December 21, 1908, for New York and to stay there for the rest of his life, talking, writing letters, and failing to fulfill commissions for portraits. For many years he had painted portraits for which he had received scant payment or none. He survived in New York on lectures, occasional articles, the support of his patron, John Quinn, and unpredictable money from WBY when royalties and a Civil List pension from the British government allowed him to be generous. JBY died on February 3, 1922.

His relations to his sons were often difficult. As a rationalist, he detested WBY’s dealings with the occult world, seances, mysticism, and spiritualism. In Memoirs WBY recalls two incidents:

I began to read Ruskin’s Unto This Last, and this, when added to my interest in psychical research and mysticism, enraged my father, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill’s. One night a quarrel over Ruskin came to such a height that in putting me out of the room he broke the glass in a picture with the back of my head. Another night when we had been in argument over Ruskin or mysticism, I cannot now remember what theme, he followed me upstairs to the room I shared with my brother. He squared up at me, and wanted to box, and when I said I could not fight my own father replied, “I don’t see why you should not.”

JBY also suspected that WBY was not merely proud but heartless. Taking Lolly’s side in a dispute with WBY in 1906, JBY rebuked him for his neo-Nietzschean hauteur:

As you have dropped affection from the circle of your needs, have you also dropped love between man and woman? Is this the theory of the overman; if so, your demi-godship is after all but a doctrinaire demi-godship…. But I fear I am wasting your time and that this is trivial fond record to a man who has cast away his humanity.

But normally the poet and his wayward father got on well enough when they were separated by the Atlantic Ocean. At worst the letters between father and son were strenuous in asserting their disagreements.

JBY was easier on his son Jack, who spent most of his early life in Sligo and, by marrying at the age of twenty-three, established his independence. In early years JBY thought that Jack’s imagination would thrive equally in his several enthusiasms—drawing, painting, writing stories, directing puppets, and making miniature theaters. On March 21, 1902, he wrote to WBY:

I have great hopes of Jack. He seems to have audacity and to be perfectly careless as to his reputation. His imagination is highly active—his faculties of judgment wholesomely quiescent—moreover he is in constant touch with life—inanition which might so easily overtake the poet who is a great corrector will never touch him—Nature I loved and next to Nature Art applies to Jack.

But Jack had no hopes of his father. He remained cool to him and mindful of his irresponsibility. Of the several children, Jack was especially close to his mother, and even when she had lapsed into darkness and silence he spoke or wrote to her as if she were still vigorously present in the world. He never forgave his father for giving her a miserable life.

Jack Yeats was born in London on August 29, 1871. He made his spiritual home in Sligo. He was an engaging boy, did well at Sligo Grammar School, and became the most equable and independent of the Yeatses. Born into a Protestant family, and despite his father’s agnosticism, he remained a churchgoer all his life. His marriage to Cottie White was by all accounts notably happy. They lived in Devon for several years, and settled in Ireland in November 1910. It irritated Jack when he was mistaken for the famous WBY, but generally the brothers were well disposed toward each other, short of intimacy or affection.

In the early years Jack illustrated some of WBY’s poems. He seems not to have been jealous of the Nobel Prize winner. In later years he spent many hours walking the streets of Dublin, alert to sights and sounds. I never met him, but I often saw him, tall, in a long black overcoat, hat and scarf as if he were providing a theatrical image for his friend Samuel Beckett. He was a prolific artist: by the time he stopped working in 1955, two years before his death, he had completed 1,200 paintings and 700 drawings. He had also written novels and plays. Bruce Arnold, in his biography, reports that from the age of seventy to eighty-four Yeats painted more than 500 canvases. A few of his paintings are in the Tate and other international galleries. Many of them are in private collections. In Ireland his work is considered a national treasure, as the Yeats Room in the National Gallery indicates. He is far more beloved than his brother.

Bruce Arnold claims that Jack Yeats “painted Ireland into an existence which it did not previously enjoy.” That is true. Jack’s Ireland differed from WBY’s; it was tangible, worldly, a place of work and sport, featuring the Galway Races and the Rosses Annual Regatta, as well as the Atlantic Ocean and the West of Ireland, and women, their shawls and loneliness. The drawings collected in Life in the West of Ireland (1912) are regularly compared in this respect to Synge’s Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World. But Arnold’s biography, affectionate to the man, nearly dismisses the artist. He argues that Jack Yeats was a fine soul but not a first-rate painter. When he compares him to other Irish painters—William Orpen, Nathaniel Hone, Walter Osborne, John Lavery, Mainie Jellett—he sees Yeats as inferior. He maintains that Yeats never learned to paint or properly to prime his canvases. In his later paintings he abandoned the use of linseed oil and turpentine, and squeezed paint directly from the tubes. The low humidity of central heating hasn’t helped his work. As a result of his carelessness, many of his paintings—especially the later ones from about 1937—are flaking, and there are cracks and bulges in the paint surface. The necessary work of restoration is proceeding.3

  1. 1

    Letters of J.B. Yeats, edited by Joseph Hone (1944). Abridged and with an introduction by John McGahern (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), pp. 158-159.

  2. 2

    W.B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), p. 62.

  3. 3

    See Brian P. Kennedy, “The Oil Painting Technique of Jack B. Yeats,” Irish Arts Review, Vol. 9 (1993), pp. 115-123.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print