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To be loved as a cupboard: the Yeats Museum in the National Gallery of Ireland. (Cover).

ACCORDING TO George Moore, who had no difficulty in finding something acid to say about any of his Dublin compares, the painter Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957) looked bored in the National Gallery of Ireland. Moore though, while cynical, was astute and observant. In Vale he compared the artist with the playwright John Millington Synge: "Synge and Jack Yeats are like each other in this, neither takes the slightest interest in anything except life, and in their own deductions from life; educated men, both of them, but without aesthetics.... Synge did not read Racine oftener than Jack Yeats looks at Titian." (1)

Yeats may have had little interest in Titian; but if he remained outside the National Gallery in preference to going inside, he had a natural acquisitive instinct all his life, seeing memorabilia of every kind as worthy of preservation to aid the muse. He stored items of likely and unlikely kind--mainly ephemeral--sorting and marking clearly everything he kept to make it readily available as a prompt to his memory as he painted Life. He approved of memorabilia with "a Museum interest" having only one qualification (in his own words)--that is, "without the permanent Mill Stone effect of a sure enough Museum." In his book Sligo Yeats also declared that he would rather be loved as a cupboard than hated as a statue (2): though evidently statues were acceptable because he did add, "a statue can have a cupboard inside." He was to become one of the governors and guardians on the board of directors at the National Gallery of Ireland during the late 1930s, and won the affectionate respect of the attendant staff. (3)

Thus the notion of dedicating a museum to him rises naturally out of his own confirmed practice, but it also became more and more of a necessity as a space in which a great man, previously unjustly neglected because of the stature of his poet brother, might be honored.

There is a museum of long-standing dedicated to his brother, the poet W. B. Yeats, in Sligo. This museum was inaugurated when the International W. B. Yeats Summer School came into being, forty years ago, as a collection of books and memorabilia that students and professors from all over the world might consult. It is a measure of the vision of Nora Niland, museum founder (she was County Librarian and therefore especially interested in W. B. Yeats's publications), that she also managed to assemble some very important paintings by Jack Yeats and other artists, being conscious that contemporaneous art was an essential adjunct to the writings. (4)

A Jack B. Yeats Museum locates naturally in Dublin since (though he claimed that every picture he painted had a thought of Sligo in it) the artist lived for half of his life in the capital, and he painted historically significant aspects of the city when Ireland was at last attaining political independence. The time for establishing the museum was ripe: Ireland as a nation was maturing in Europe. The project was originally inspired by the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, a mansion (or cluster of palacios joined together) where, instead of Picasso's largest, most famous work, crucial early works demonstrating his development as an artist are to be found. The exhibit is crowned with a display of studies with the resulting canvases of his important Las Meninas series. Paris has another Picasso Museum, honouring this great modern artist as an adopted Frenchman. In their appropriate countries are other museums dedicated to national masters of European stature; and now in the National Gallery of Ireland, within the context of three centuries of the best of Irish art, the Yeats Museum in honor of Jack B. Yeats, Ireland's greatest modern painter, has an acknowledged importance. It has proved exceedingly popular with regular gallery goers and scholars.

The term "museum" derives from the Greek "mousa"--i.e., "muse" or "inspiration"--which conveys what the museum hopes to achieve. It is designed to be more than purely an area for viewing pictures, and in a variety of ways makes room for the Yeats genius to continue to spread its influence. In the archive the artist may be "loved as a cupboard," and, in the museum gallery--assisted by the enlightened approach of the Education Department of the National Gallery (5)--his work may be surveyed "without the permanent Mill Stone effect of a sure enough Museum."

Following the Barcelona experience, I had envisaged a Jack B. Yeats Museum filled with paintings and mementoes of the artist as being in a Georgian house in Fitzwilliam Square, where he resided for a considerable time and conceived his greatest masterpieces. This may come to pass some day. In the meantime, from a Yeats Room introduced into the Gallery in 1990 and showing twenty-five pictures, the exhibit has moved to the elegant and historic space opened in March 1999. This event culminated twelve years of work, first persuading the appropriate authorities that such a museum was needed, and then, when I was appointed Yeats Curator in 1994, planning a suitable exhibition space. Anne Yeats's 1996 gift of her uncle's entire archive to the National Gallery provided the necessary impetus for the project, and appropriately the doors of the museum were opened in time to celebrate her eightieth birthday. The final stage in the museum's preparation will be complete early in 2002 when a dedicated archive study room will open to the public in the National Gallery's new wing.

The original collection of Jack B. Yeats paintings and drawings was built up in the National Gallery of Ireland from his lifetime to the present day, mainly though the munificence of donors, and occasionally by direct purchase. Two-thirds of the works have come into the national collection as bequests or gifts, and the museum continues to be dependent on such generosity. But if small--thirty-four paintings in all--the collection is excellent, ranging from his oil panel The Priest, painted in 1913 as illustration to George Birmingham's Irishmen All, to the powerful late canvas Grief, of 1951, in which conjuring up a small Irish town, the artist expresses his abhorrence of war. The Dublin-inspired compositions in the collection, besides playing a major part thematically, form an interesting sequence in demonstrating the artist's stylistic development. The Liffey Swim, In the Lucan Tram, and The Beggarman in the Shop are evidence of the gradual loosening of his narrative manner, while he still maintained lucid forms and handled pigment conventionally.

In Islandbridge Regatta (1925), Yeats has broken from "line's confines" as he put it (front cover). His need to express the elusive inner life becomes immediately apparent. The competitive sport, enacted in the river and surveyed from the bank, now has a mythological aspect, while emphasis is laid on the vaguely defined figures in the foreground, and on the dominant golden-haired youth, who will henceforth become a symbol of the continual renewal of life in Yeats's paintings. Light and dark, morning and evening assist his subsequent metaphors of life in the city, here calling up the mystery of his studio as day dwindles, there revealing the wakening heart of the Dublin business world.

There are a number of Sligo and West of Ireland subjects in the collection, too, and images of circus and theatre, which group together appropriately. The late individualistic poetic works pick up the early earthy themes, elevating them to a metaphysical plane. The Singing Horseman (1949), a striking uplifting image, infused with light and color, is predictably one of the most popular of these paintings.

Recent acquisitions include the small panel A Morning, formerly in the collection of writer Samuel Beckett, an admirer of Yeats who was obliged to borrow to purchase the painting, and the 1945 oil And So My Brother Hail and Farewell for Evermore (figure 1). In this, the artist celebrates and mourns the departed (the widespread casualties of war as well as his own personal bereavements) while coming to terms with the ephemerality of life represented in the fleeting symbol of a seabird passing by. Man and bird are united for a moment as transient beings in the enveloping seascape.

The Yeats Museum occupies a tall, spacious environment originally designed to house Archbishop Marsh's Library. (6) Before its recent conversion, this area was home to the National Portraits and then to the Icon and Early Italian Collections. In such ample space, it is possible to hang almost all the oils at one time, with a few works on loan and the watercolors and works on paper on a system of rotation: though recently we are hanging more economically so as to give more room to such complex paintings. (7) It also has been possible to mount two mini-exhibitions in the museum to mark the millennium, one highlighting Yeats's many horse paintings, the other showing the progress of conservation work on the Jack B. Yeats Archive.

Housed for the moment in a temporary location during conservation and cataloguing, the archive divides into three distinct areas: the artist's library; his sketchbooks; and a collection of manuscripts, scrapbooks, and boxes filled with miscellany amassed by him throughout his life. Jack Yeats was by nature a beachcomber; these last illuminate his subject matter and explain his methods of working.

Yeats had a rough system of storage for easy reference. Smaller objects were grouped in brown envelopes on which the contents were listed, sometimes with a sketch, or, in later years, with his distinctive monogram. Shirt boxes and other convenient receptacles coped with many of the larger or more awkwardly shaped mementos, such as old journals and outsize publications, the medals he won, as well as corks and other bits and pieces that might be of use in the construction of the toy boats he loved to make. He used scrapbooks to preserve images stamped on orange papers, newspaper pictures, and so on--a method he developed for boosting his memory. Maps, timetables, and cuttings fill several discarded Ancient Irish Vellum boxes, which originally held the writing paper made at Saggart Mills, which supplied the paper for the Dun Emer and Cuala Presses.

One idiosyncratic habit was to cut out the inner pages of an old leather-bound volume (Paley's Principles of Moral & Political Philosophy, for example), and to insert drawings and prints of his own. The images were safe, hidden from any eyes but his own; preserving them within such "proper" symbols of the past not only gave Jack Yeats the unexpected context he desired, but must have appealed to his sense of humor as well.

When his niece Anne inherited his archive, she was faced with the task of sorting the enormous quantity of memorabilia, not all by any means stored so neatly as might appear from the above, and she adopted a comparable system for what was not already boxed. Letters were placed in files. She made parcels out of material that was previously shelved or inadequately stored, grouping similar matter together where possible, and numbering and indexing parcels to make them accessible for purposes of the scholars who visited her.

Manuscripts for his plays, catalogues of the artist's exhibitions, press cuttings, advertisements with striking images or phraseology, personal records and indexes, Victorian miniature plays, programs of sporting events, playbills, postcards, and photographs were all gathered together in the same way. These parcels were then numbered and stored in a large wooden trunk until they came into the National Gallery.

From the artist's extensive library Anne selected the books of major importance, keeping all that bore the artist's signature, or some other mark of particular interest. She kept all of Jack's own publications, and family books. Besides some of Cottie's books (his wife Mary Cottenham Yeats, known as Cottie, admired W. B. Yeats's writings and collected his early first editions), there are a few volumes originally in the possession of Lily Yeats, whose effects Jack (as the sole surviving member of the family) had to disperse when she died. Jack himself was interested in historic children's books and kept Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book, illustrated with thirty-six pages of Kronheim colored plates (a Christmas gift from his mother in 1875). Among other findings in his library are a number of Randolph Caldecott's picture books, Mrs. Hoffland's William and his Uncle Ben (in a new edition of the 1830s given to him by Cottie), and the Cabinet of Useful Arts and Manufacturers (1821), originally belonging to the youthful Thomas Collins whose name is inscribed in it, and bought nearly a century later by the artist on the Dublin Quays.

The children's books are but a small but fascinating section of the collection of nearly five hundred volumes. There are also reference works, novels of different kinds, books of poetry, and volumes on special topics such as horses, ships, wine, gardening, freemasonry, knots, and entertainment. Works on art are in a minority (illustrated art books of course were not common when Jack B. Yeats was assembling his library) and include artists such as Daumier, Goya, Cruikshank, Ensor, and Renoir.

One of the most exciting aspects of such a diverse archive is the collection of nearly two hundred sketchbooks (figure 2). Jack B. Yeats took a sketchbook with him wherever he went, the typical example measuring 9 x 13 cms and fitting comfortably into his pocket. His abiding theme was Life, and he sketched whatever took his fancy--amusing incidents with colloquialisms jotted down, landscapes with or without people, curious details such as an unusual gate latch. The sketchbooks, carefully dated and noting places visited on the cover, were a form of diary for the artist. He never made studies, and rarely recorded thoughts for subsequent compositions, but very occasionally a sketch has obviously inspired and resembles a picture in image or subject matter. The sketchbooks were his way of analyzing the character of the culture in which he was reared and lived, and a way of practicing its delineation. Ultimately they became a primary source for pictorial inspiration, which he consulted regularly, and from which he drew many late themes.

Over half a century he used his small chronological sketchbooks, generally working in situ with pencil and reinforcing the sketches with pen and wash when he came home. Very occasionally he worked in pure watercolor. Most sketchbooks belong to the earlier period when his painting was largely representational. He sketched in particular areas, London, Liverpool, and various parts of Ireland, returning to his studio--first in Devon, later in Wicklow, then in Dublin--to paint in watercolor and oils a memory of what he had experienced, stimulated by the small images made on the spot.

In the later paintings of course, where his imagination soared by means of metaphor, his practice was to look through the sketchbooks and to develop an image which his memory enhanced consciously and where extra elements were allowed to intrude. The fact that memory itself fascinated him in a surreal way is ascertained from the sketchbooks as well as from the titles of his paintings. Because he parted with some of the small books during his lifetime, notably those recording his journey with J. M. Synge around West Connemara and Mayo, the collection cannot claim to be complete, but it is an immeasurably valuable source for studying Yeats's art and learning to understand it.

The archive is important in the Yeats Museum as material for exhibition as well as for study. One of the museum's policies is to put on display matter that is relevant to the exhibited paintings. For example, during the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the annual Liffey Swim, the museum exhibited the Olympic medal that Yeats won for his painting of this event when it was in its infancy.

The museum has also been able to acquire some items by purchase to expand the archive, and there has been an enthusiastic response from the viewing public in donations of Yeats material of different kinds.

Recently a sponsor provided a model theater built to specifications published by Yeats, describing his own original toy theater that no longer exists. In a letter in the archive Anne Yeats relates how at an early age she was given a copy of one of her uncle's miniature plays, The Treasure of the Garden, and, following the instructions, cut out the scenes and characters, only to be reprimanded by her mother:
   At the time I had made myself a little theatre out of an old wooden box, I
   produced little plays, acted all the parts and was the only audience.

   I did the sets, the costumes and the lights--which consisted of little
   torches & bulbs. I was delighted to get the "Treasure" and promptly set
   about cutting out the characters & scenes, intending to mount them and act
   out the play. Unfortunately my mother caught me at it, and was extremely
   angry, she said that I had "cut up a first edition." I doubt whether I had,
   then, ever heard of "first editions," never mind realising their
   sacredness. It seemed to me to be a quite reasonable thing to do, to cut
   out a play intended to be cut out! However I put the play away outright,
   though never out of memory, and now, after 62 or 63 years, I give it to the
   National Gallery, in the hope that they might finish what I began so long

The new model theater is now on view in the Yeats Museum, with replicas of those same scenes and figures that the artist's niece cut out. (8) Examples of scenes and characters from the miniature plays by Pollock and others who inspired the artist, and which he collected, are displayed near them from time to time. It is hoped that in the future the museum may be able to put on performances, or host readings of Yeats's adult plays, so that the multi-faceted Life, which he sought to interpret and to translate into paint, may constantly revivify the permanent display.

Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957) was the youngest member of a remarkable family. "I painted because I was the son of an artist," he said; while his father, who had his own aspirations as a writer, attributed the poetic genius of William, his elder son, to his silent, now generally ignored, wife. Jack's two sisters, prominent in the Irish Arts and Crafts movement, were influenced by Jack's originality as a designer. He cooperated with Lily, providing drawings for her art embroidery, and with Elizabeth (Lolly), designing for the Dun Emer and Cuala Presses. He illustrated his brother's books at all periods of his life. So the whole family fit into the Yeats Museum concept.

Because the National Gallery has the finest collection of John Butler Yeats paintings in the world, as well as one of the few authenticated works by W. B. Yeats, it has been possible to show Jack in the context of his family. This strength of the collection has an added benefit, because, as prices for Yeats works continue to soar, the Gallery has become unable to compete on the market. Through the Grand Fund, established some years ago, benefactors from the United States, Britain, Ireland, and Australia have donated funds and artefacts, including a John Butler Yeats portrait, a Jack Yeats watercolor, and a Lily Yeats embroidered picture--all valued acquisitions. Occasionally attainable works of importance come our way; for example, in June 1999, we were able to buy twenty-three of John Butler Yeats's forty-eight illustrations for the Dent edition of Defoe, with two additional drawings that were not used. With recent donations and purchases, as well as one long-term loan, the collection now boasts 172 Yeatses at the time of writing: fifty-seven (including oils and watercolors) by Jack Yeats, ninety-seven by his father, and the rest (watercolors, embroideries, and oils) by William, Lily, and Elizabeth, and by his niece Anne, also a painter. In addition, the collection includes four embroideries by their cousin Ruth Pollexfen, who trained in the Dun Emer workshops as assistant to Lily, and subsequently became an interior designer in Australia.

Often referred to as "JBY" (one of his forms of signature), John Butler Yeats (1839-1922) is as highly esteemed in New York as in his homeland. (9) This brilliant but itinerant parent spent his last fourteen years there. He was never to see his children again, except for the poet who visited him when on a lecture tour, but he corresponded with them at length. He could still influence artist and poet from a distance, though in spirit and habit they had both long since anchored in the land of their ancestors, and in particular in the Sligo their mother had taught them to love.

JBY's restless nature perhaps accounts for the way in which he continually reassessed and revised his method of working, always comparing his style with that of younger contemporaries. Consequently the likenesses he made of his sitters are generally lively and original. On entering the exhibition in the museum, the visitor is immediately confronted by his portraits of the two outstanding members of the family, Jack B. Yeats and his brother William. JBY seemed to prefer his own progeny as sitters, making several portraits of each. Thus he contributed to any opinions they formed of themselves and manipulated posterity's vision of their contrasting characters. Near William are JBY, in a late unfinished self-portrait (figure 3), and his wife, Susan Mary Pollexfen, portrayed in subdued browns after ten years of marriage, her demure and serious face framed by a modest bonnet. Lily, closest companion of their father, hangs near Jack, in a portrait rendered romantically by JBY as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth.


Though the National Gallery has no portrait of Elizabeth (1868-1940), Jack's younger sister has been represented for the new museum's first two years by JBY's only oil of her, generously lent by the family. Her work will continue to be represented by examples of her watercolors or prints. A handpainted fan of 1905, bearing a verse from one of her brother's first collections cradled deliciously in pansies and crocuses, will be exhibited from time to time.

JBY's portraits of now historic personalities, friends, and acquaintances during the height of the Irish cultural and political movement are a feature of the museum. They include some remarkable, often forgotten, women: Violet Osborne, sister of the painter Walter Osborne; Ruth Heaven, sister of connoisseur patron Hugh Lane; and Rosa Butt, daughter of Isaac Butt, the Home Rule leader, for whom JBY devilled (10) while he trained for the Bar, before he had aspirations as an artist. His gift for child portraiture brought him from London to Dublin in the 1880s to paint for friends and others. At that time he painted the memorable Jack B. Yeats as a Boy.

Returning to Dublin once more, he painted the creators of the Literary Revival in captivating images: AE (George Russell) and Susan Mitchell, mystic poets who were editor and sub-editor, respectively, of Horace Plunkett's nationalist publication, the Irish Homestead; Standish O'Grady, who brought to life the heroes of Gaelic legend; Padraic Colum, poet and dramatist (a recent long-term loan); Maire nic Shiubhlaigh, the beautiful Abbey actress who also worked in Lily's embroidery workshop; Douglas Hyde (An Craoibhin Aoibhinn), founder of the Gaelic League and first President of Ireland; and the novelist George Moore, who himself immortalized, if spitefully, all those involved in the literary movement, and is seen in the oil as an elegant philosopher. Three portraits from JBY's American period were donated to the National Gallery in the 1960s and make an effective bridge to two canvases by Anne, his granddaughter. One of these, painted in the 1990s, is a reminder that the creativity of the Yeats family has yet to be quenched.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), her father, also trained as an artist. (11) In later years, when opening an exhibition of the Painters Group of the Radical Club in Dublin, the poet said that he had been driven out of art by "those damnable things called tone and value," (12) while what he was looking for was rhythm and color. Both the rhythm and color he sought pervade the watercolor, painted when he was twenty-one. The study, Head of a Boy, was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites whom his father (one of his tutors at the School of Art) admired. This rare acquisition was gifted to the National Gallery many years ago by the daughter of his friend, the poet Katharine Tynan.

Color and rhythm persist in the poetry W. B. Yeats published in the late editions of the Broadsides, exhibited also from time to time in the museum. A Broadside was originally initiated in 1908 by Jack, who found ballads and poems and made illustrations for the monthly publication printed by his sister Elizabeth at Dun Emer and Cuala. In the 1930s William revived A Broadside, still combining verse with art, but adding original music scores, and involving Jack along with other artists. Lily (1866-1949), who devoted her life to art embroidery, turned to William's poetry for inspirational themes from time to time. Though the museum possesses none of the embroideries that employ citations, it has recently acquired a "portiere" curtain with seagulls designed for Lily by Jack's wife, Mary Cottenham Yeats, and thought to have been used as background for one of William's plays. Like Jack, Lily was drawn into special performances of these unusual works, brilliant in their visual as well as their verbal conception. The family continued to work together closely when appropriate.

The Yeats Museum endeavours, therefore, to be as flexible in display and content as possible, maintaining an emphasis on the diversity of Jack B. Yeats's art, and, through methods of presentation, assisting the public's interpretation of it. As a core collection of crucial works in over a century of Irish art, the museum plays a major role in the National Gallery.

The most recent acquisition has come from New York, the gift of Brian O'Doherty (more recently known as Patrick Ireland), who now resides there. As a young artist, O'Doherty visited Jack B. Yeats a few weeks before he died, and, while Jack Yeats slept, drew this moving portrait. Yeats was in his final home, the Portobello Nursing Home, originally a hotel, by the lock water of the Grand Canal where he had so often walked.

(1) George Moore, Vale (London: William Heinemann, 1914), 140-41.

(2) Jack B. Yeats, Sligo (London: Wishart & Company, 1930), 98.

(3) Yeats was appointed to the board in November 1938, and served on it for about fifteen years. Christmas cards received from the attendant staff of the National Gallery of Ireland toward the end of his life are preserved in the Yeats Archive.

(4) The paintings have recently been moved from the Library in Stephen Street to be displayed in a dedicated gallery in the Model School Arts Centre, Sligo.

(5) In July 2000 the Education Department of the National Gallery of Ireland held a seminar for children in the Yeats Museum, encouraging the participants to compose their own artwork after reflection on his painted and theatrical images.

(6) However, in the event it never moved from the original library building beside St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.

(7) Lighting has been designed specifically to facilitate showing drawings alongside oils.

(8) These are preserved in the archive.

(9) From the beginning of his career Jack Yeats chose to be known as "Jack B. Yeats" to distinguish himself from his artist father, always signing himself in this way, or with his personal monogram.

(10) As a junior legal counsel apprenticed to a senior barrister, he performed the lowliest, often boring, duties.

(11) His father, JBY, insisted that a period at art school was an essential part of a normal education.

(12) At the time, these were the approved elements of painting instruction.

HILARY PYLE is Yeats Curator at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Among her publications on writers and artists of the Irish Renaissance are James Stephens, his Work and an Account of his Life (1965); Jack B. Yeats: a Biography (1970, rev. ed. 1989); Jack B. Yeats: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Oil Paintings (1992); Yeats: Portrait of an Artistic Family (1997); and A Red Headed Rebel: Susan Mitchell, Poet and Mystic of the Irish Cultural Renaissance (1999). Pyle was elected Honorary Royal Hibernian Academician in 2000 and is currently completing a manuscript on the life and personal journals of Sadhbh Trinseach, artist and nationalist.
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Author:Pyle, Hilary
Publication:Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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