‘One of Ireland’s finest modern painters’: a collecting guide to Jack Butler Yeats
The lyrical paintings of this quintessentially Irish artist resonated with writers ranging from Samuel Beckett to James Joyce. Illustrated with six works offered at Christie’s
Ireland was Jack Butler Yeats’s subject: the turbulence of its sea, the unreliability of its weather, the softness of its countryside misted with rain. His paintings are visual stories of everyday life — of street hawkers, farmers and fishermen, boxing matches and football games.
‘I do not think,’ wrote the poet Thomas MacGreevy in 1938, ‘I am claiming too much for Jack Yeats when I say that nobody before him had juxtaposed landscape and figure without subduing the character of either to that of the other.’
On 9 July, six paintings by the Irish artist will be offered at auction in The B.J. Eastwood Collection: Important Sporting and Irish Pictures. The paintings cover Yeats’s early and late periods, from The Kerry Mascot (below) of 1915 to Among Horses of 1947.
According to Pippa Jacomb, Christie’s specialist in Modern British and Irish Art, ‘It is rare to have so many paintings by Yeats of such good quality in one collection.’
Brother of W.B. Yeats
Born in London in 1871, Jack Butler Yeats was the younger brother of the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Unlike the rest of his family, he grew up with his grandparents, in the verdant, untamed landscape of Sligo in the West of Ireland.
After a brief period at art school in London he worked as an illustrator and a popular cartoonist for Punch magazine under the name W. Bird. His success in the field was down to an off-beat gallows humour tempered by an innate belief in the goodness of people. ‘Never have a narrow heart,’ he said.
Dublin and Samuel Beckett
In 1910 he returned to Ireland with his wife, the artist Mary ‘Cottie’ Yeats (1869-1947). They settled in the harbour town of Greystones until 1917, and then in Dublin, where they became part of a literary and artistic community that included the painter Dermod O’Brien (1865-1945) and the writer and Irish nationalist George William Russell (1867-1935).
In 1929 the couple moved to an apartment in Fitzwilliam Square, where they held Thursday afternoon salons, focused on art and literature, with the poets Austin Clarke (1896–1974) and Padraic Colum (1881–1972).
It was here, in 1931, that Samuel Beckett met Yeats. Despite their difference in age, the two became good friends, recognising in each other a creative urge to examine the nature of existence in the modern world. In 1938 Yeats helped persuade Routledge to publish Beckett's first novel, the absurdist masterpiece Murphy.
‘The mark of a Sligo man’
Yeats struck an unusual presence in Dublin. Elegantly thin and angular, he was often seen wearing a wide-brimmed hat. The poet Thomas Kinsella (b. 1928) described him as having ‘a long pale chin’ and ‘aged eyes’.
He was polite and quiet, perhaps as a result of his family’s prodigious volubility — his brother William and his father, the portrait painter John Butler Yeats (1839-1922), were both known for their endless philosophising. He walked, said his father, with a ‘certain roll and lurch in his gait, that being the mark of a Sligo man’.
Early Yeats paintings were typified by fixed lines, dramatic shadows and muted colours of pale blue and grey. He was naturally drawn to those on the margins of society.
Works such as A Summer Day, 1914, and The Dark Man, 1913-1919 (below), capture the stoic and philosophical nature of the outsider.
‘He was an empathetic observer,’ says Jacomb, ‘and the more you look at his paintings, the more activity you see. The shop signs and the goods in the window and the men in the background in deep conversation. There is a sense of life being lived around you.’
In the mid-1920s, however, Yeats’s art underwent a transformation. As the Irish Civil War turned the country against itself, Yeats became a keen witness to political events, documenting the bloody and tragic war through portraits of political prisoners, Republican meetings and funerals.
‘Yeats’s patriotism was intense and of a deeply idealistic nature,’ wrote his biographer, Hilary Pyle. ‘To him the Free Staters were middle-class, while the Republicans represented all that was noble and free. His patriotism had nothing to do with war or the practicalities of the situation, but was rather a dedication to the perfect life, without blemish, where no man was subject to another.’
Mysticism and horses
His style became fluid, raw and spontaneous. It broke free of the line to create expressive images that appear constantly on the move, as if battered by the forces of the Irish weather. He also invested his subjects with a powerful mysticism. Horses had particular symbolism for Yeats, representing freedom — in Among Horses, above, the movement and energy of the four differently coloured animals contrasts with the static pose of a man sitting on a rock.
These works became known as ‘half-memory’ paintings, floating above reality and recalling incidents from the artist’s past. The Old Days, below, recalls a fight Yeats witnessed as a young man in London in the late 1800s.
James Joyce and Graham Greene
Beckett described these later paintings as ‘desperately immediate images’, writing to his friend MacGreevy, ‘Tell Jack Yeats he has lit a fire that will spread.’
For the playwright, Yeats’s paintings captured the drama of the individual in the Irish landscape — and Beckett was not the only writer to be drawn to the artist’s symbolism. Both Graham Greene (1904-1991) and James Joyce (1882-1941) owned paintings by Yeats, with Joyce saying that he saw a similarity in their creative methods.
Jacomb suspects they were attracted by the poetic nature of the works. ‘The word lyrical is often used to describe Yeats’s paintings because they deal with the imagination and memory, and I think that translates for many writers. That and the fact that he was such an acute observer of human action.’
Novels and plays
Yeats was also a writer himself, publishing several novels and plays that were staged in Dublin in the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote, said his biographer, ‘to unburden his active mind’. His writing, like his paintings, was experimental. His modern prose revealed the vibrancy of his imagination as his characters confronted life’s tragedies with enigmatic humour and calm forbearance.
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‘That’s the reason he appeals across categories,’ says Jacomb. ‘Although he is considered to be one of Ireland's finest modern painters, his works are about the endurance of the human spirit against the odds, and that theme is universal.’