The Boat Builder was for many years in the collection of the British ornithologist, naval officer, and painter, Sir Peter Scott, C.B.E. During the Second World War, Scott was credited with designing the North Atlantic ship camouflage scheme, which disguised the look of ship superstructure. The scheme was said to be so effective that several British ships collided with each other, but, on the plus side, it made them almost invisible to the wolf packs of German U-Boats, sent to disrupt the Atlantic Convoys.
Scott was just two years old when, in 1912, his even more famous father, also a naval officer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, perished with four of his men on their journey back from the South Pole, having discovered the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, had reached it before them. It was because of his appreciation of boats, the sea, and later on through his BBC natural history series, popularising the study of wildfowl and wetlands, that The Boat Builder was central to Sir Peter’s collection of pictures.
In 1905, a year after Scott senior’s successful scientific expedition on RRS Discovery to Antarctica had returned to Britain, a trip that had caught the public imagination and Scott had become a popular hero, Yeats set off to tour the poorest districts of the Gaelic-speaking West of Ireland, with the dramatist, John Millington Synge. He was commissioned to provide illustrations for Synge’s articles for the Manchester Guardian. This was an area ravaged by the potato famine and emigration, but they found a hard-working, elderly population living off the poor land and dangerous Atlantic Ocean. Yeats and Synge bonded and the artist went on to illustrate the writer’s book, The Aran Islands, and in 1907, he also designed the costumes and set for his most famous work, The Playboy of the Western World.
The Boat Builder relates to Yeats’ drawing of Boat-building at Carna, used to illustrated Synge’s Guardian article about the Galway boat builders, published on 28 June 1905. On the same day, Yeats wrote to his good friend, the playwright, John Masefield, from Feeney’s Imperial Hotel in Swinford, Co. Mayo. This letter referred to his tour of the West in the company of Synge, where he remarked, “We have seen some fine places, delightful bays, and islands in Connemara and then Belmullet, a little port of the County’s with a fine situation. It’s only a port for little Hookers ...” The Galway 'Hooker’ is a traditional fishing boat used in Galway bay. The boats come in four sizes, the smallest of which, the Púcán, is entirely open. In the drawing and the present work, the boatman leans against such a craft, and another can be seen sailing beyond in the bay behind him.
On the back of the envelope of his letter to Masefield, Yeats sketched images of himself and Synge, on a country road flanking pannier-laden donkeys walking towards them, with no sign of their handler. Boat-building at Carna was also used in a later publication by Synge, In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara. This was a collection of all of the Guardian articles, published after the writer’s death in 1911.
Around this time, Yeats switched from painting in watercolours to oils and began to record many of the representative professions in contemporary rural Ireland. He called on his earlier sketchbooks, and in 1913, he was commissioned to paint twelve illustrations in oil for Canon J.O. Hannay (alias George A. Birmingham’s) popular book, Irishmen All.
Of the twelve illustrations, The Great Official stands with his servant outside an Imperial Hotel (perhaps Feeney’s in Swinford), and in another, The Police Sergeant, a portly police officer turns towards a braking horse and cart as he descends a steep hill. Beyond this is a winding valley, populated by thatched cottages – the type of road that Yeats and Synge would have ambled along during their tour in 1905.
The Boat Builder, which follows these illustrations in the artist’s studio book, continues the theme of a local character standing beside a clinker-built fishing boat, with another at sail in the bay beyond. His boat shed door lies open in the distance, splatted with lines of boat paint where he has cleaned his brushes earlier.