Ireland 50 Years Ago: Jack B Yeats Special Edition 1

A special edition of Ireland of the Welcomes, July-August 1971, was devoted to Jack B Yeats, in honour of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Having been intensely moved recently by the National Gallery’s exhibition, Jack B Yeats: Painting and Memory, I was interested to look at how he was viewed in 1971, as part of my Ireland 50 Years Ago series.

The illustrations are all from this issue and sorry – photographing from an old magazine doesn’t guarantee the greatest quality. This post will take us up to the beginning of his career as an expressionist painter, after he honed his drawing and watercolour skills and started to exhibit. This part of Yeats’ work is not really covered in the National Gallery Exhibition, which is almost entirely devoted to his oil paintings and is organised thematically rather than chronologically.

Island Funeral, rendered in the magazine in black and white

The long article is by Roger McHugh, based on his Introduction to the Dolmen Press book Jack B Yeats, A Centenary Gathering. Roger McHugh was himself an esteemed academic at UCC, a writer, playwright and critic, an ardent republican, and according to his bio in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, ‘an enthralling dinner-table raconteur.’ His analysis is insightful and evocative. I will simply use his words after the poem by MacDonagh and through the rest of the post, indicated by italics.

The article begins with a poem by Donagh MacDonagh (an equally  erudite man with an impressive literary and nationalist pedigree) which I will quote in full as it expresses wonderfully what it is to look at a Yeats painting.

Love of the dusty rose 

Blooming above the Square 

Lights the whole studio 

And singer, fisher, clown, 

Horseman and Saddled Horse

Surge through the winter air

Razing the years and the walls 

For the wild man of the fair

To snatch the wagered purse

And bring the champion down.

The women by Liffey side,

The pig-buyer home from the fair,

The horse taking time in its stride

Are dead, with the big-muscled men

Who bullied their way into sight

And froze in an arrogant stare;

But they and the sailors of Sligo

Are bright in a memory where

Colour condenses in light

And the starved rose blushes again.

Donagh MacDonagh

Create? The painter had his reservations: ‘No one creates’, he wrote; ‘the artist assembles memories’. By this I think he meant that the intense moment is always already past but that observation, memory and technique can recapture it. . . He thought that ‘painting was the freest and greatest means of communication we have’ and that the finest paintings always had ‘some of the living ginger of life in them’.

As a youth in Sligo He preferred to play around the quays and the streets, inspecting with due reverence sea captains, sailors and pilots, or at country fairs and sports observing and sketching small farmers, pig-jobbers, worried shopkeepers, untamed tinkers, shouting ballad singers, exultant jockeys surrounded  by triumphant or sullen wild faces, or the stirring arrivals of Bianconi long cars, of bands, of circuses.

This drawing (also reproduced from Ireland of the Welcomes) is an illustration from Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Read more about Yeats’ and Synge’s collaborations in this post

As a background to these assorted characters was a setting of great variety; cliffs whose wildness was accentuated by the ‘crashing wind and lashing sea’ . . . legended mountains like Ben Bulben and Knocknarea, long reaches of sand sometimes marked ominously by wrecks perhaps dating to the Armada.

Jack B Yeats as painted by his father, John Butler Yeats. I find it uncanny how little his expression changed between this boyhood image and a photograph taken of him as an older man (below)

Even at sixteen he had started his career as a professional illustrator . . . he illustrated school-books, newspapers, periodicals, comic-cuts, racing papers.

Where England gave him many subjects for his illustrations and sketches, Ireland provided almost all those for the drawings and watercolours which he exhibited up to 1911 in Dublin and London. The Painters who exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy at that time were either English or Irish imitators of the Leightons and the Poynters, titled men who set the standard. ‘It was into their varnished world where it was nice to see a bit of Normandy or something from Surrey painted by an Irish artist,’ wrote C. P. Curran, ‘that Jack Yeats broke with his troop of tinkers and maggie-men, jockeys and drovers, pig-jobbers and purse-proud horse dealers, stout farmers and sea-faring men, the whole life of a little western town by the sea. It was very exciting, but was it art?

Following his own lead about the affectionate zest for life that is the basis of artistic achievement, I think that people untutored in technique but with some sensitivity can catch the essential elements of those early works. . . . They depict individuals. . . . but in such a way as to capture some essential quality which lifts the picture above its particulars. A tinker is painted in black garb which is set against the black of rock and the dark sky, relieved by a glimpse of white sea-foam. His wild eyes gleam from a ‘black-avised narrow face; he seems the embodiment of some wild night spirit.

The line-drawing of the squireen, bowler-hatted, gloomily assertive, owes much to the sharp, sure vertical lines of his coat and umbrella set against the curve of road, wall and mountain.

The next post will take us through his life as the greatest of Irish painters. Here’s a sample image from the article.

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