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.

Ireland 50 Years Ago: April 1971, JM Synge Issue

Back to Ireland of the Welcomes and this time to the March-April issue of 1971. This was a special issue, largely devoted to John Millington Synge, born April 16th, 1871, which means that next Friday is the 150th anniversary of his birth. These two photographs from this issue show Synge and the beautiful Abbey actor to whom he was engaged, Molly Allgood. Alas, JM died far too young, at 38, and Molly went on to lead a longer but unhappy life.

There’s a special connection to West Cork too – Synge’s mother, Catherine but known as Kathleen, was the daughter of the Rev Robert Trail, Rector of Schull. She is shown above with her children – JM is bottom right. I have written about the various roles her father played in this area.  During the Tithe Wars he railed against all protests, declaring that he “waged war against Popery and its thousand forms of wickedness”. He saw an outbreak of cholera after a huge rally as God’s vengeance on this who would deprive him of his income. He tried his hand at mining and established a considerable workings at Dhurode, the remains of which can still be seen – see Two Mines are Better Than One. It was doing well when interrupted by the Famine.  Finally, during the Famine, his better nature won out and he worked tirelessly to alleviate distress. He died of famine fever in Black ’47, universally mourned and honoured for his efforts to inform the public about the dire situation and to feed the starving people all around him. That’s Traill below in one of James Mahony’s sketches for the Illustrated London News – he had led Mahony to Mullins hut so he could witness and capture first hand the desolation, disease and despair.

That was in 1847 and Kathleen would have been 11. There is a contemporary account of how hard the whole Traill family were working to fill the soup pots, how difficult was the ceaseless onslaught of begging, how dangerous the fever-filled air. Her mother fled Schull as soon as she could after Robert’s death – she was later sent a bill for damage to the rectory caused by building a soup kitchen! Kathleen married a barrister, John Hatch Synge, and Edmund John Millington was their youngest child. Kathleen found solace from the trauma of her early experiences in her father’s stern fundamentalist faith – a faith that never wavered although it brought her into conflict with JM. Interestingly, that conflict did not destroy their mutual love for each other, and Kathleen (although looking stern in the photograph below) has been described as kind and generous.

JM grew up to be one of Ireland’s foremost dramatists and the writer of a unique and inventive form of English that set out to capture the idiom and cadence of Irish. And here’s where our second West Cork connection comes in – his Irish teacher in Trinity was none other than our own Canon Goodman (below), who spent half of each year in his parish of Abbeystrewry in Skibbereen and the other half in Dublin teaching Irish. He had no more committed or enthusiastic student than JM. 

For an excellent summary of the life and work of JM Synge I recommend you to the essay by Declan Kiberd in the newly-available-online Dictionary of Irish Biography. In this issue of Ireland of the Welcomes the major essay on Synge is by the distinguished Canadian Academic Ann Saddlemyer. Saddlemyer is now 90, an elected member of the Royal Irish Academy and a long-recognised expert on Synge, WB Yeats and the history of Irish theatre.

Another charming piece is by JM’s great-nephew, Lanto Synge, a fine arts and antique consultant, recently retired. His essay tells the stories that have come down through the family, including the great religious divide. He paints a portrait of a shy, nervous, intensely musical and engaging man, travelling and studying wherever he went, philosophically attuned to modern thought while immersed in an appreciation of an ancient language and way of life.   

The issue contains several extracts from Synge’s plays, poetry and prose, each one illustrated by photographs or drawings.* One thing I hadn’t realised  is that Synge was an early photographer. Although some of his photos are are reproduced in this article (two examples below), you can see better images at Ricorso. They show he had an ethnographer’s eye and an interest in the everyday lived experience of his subjects, such as the man threshing by hand and the two women spinning.

One of his great friends was Jack B Yeats and they worked collaboratively on several projects. Yeats illustrated his book on the Aran Islands (downloadable from archive.org – a site that is surely the greatest boon to researchers like us!). The two pictures below are from that source rather than the article. Synge and Yeats were of one mind, it seems, in what they chose to focus on.

But Jack B Yeats did more than illustrate The Aran Islands – he produced drawings for Synge’s three-act masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World. This appears to have been an iterative process. We see a letter from Yeats to Synge, advising on the outfit a jockey might wear in the West of Ireland.

The finished illustrations are wonderful – this subject gave Yeats great scope to indulge his love of horses and horse racing.

Two of the horse racing sequences occupy the centrefold of the issue. It is obvious that both Synge and Yeats are intimately familiar with, and relish, this kind of occasion in the West of Ireland.

This issue of Ireland of the Welcomes does contain a couple of other articles, but I will leave it there, since the bulk of it is devoted to Synge and it is good to focus on and celebrate him on such an auspicious anniversary.

*Although individuals (some no longer alive)  are thanked for illustrations in the issue, it is unclear after all this time whether there are any copyright issues and so I have reproduced illustrations from the magazine, and from my downloaded copy of The Aran Islands, with gratitude to those who provided them. I will remove these images, or seek permission to retain them, if I am alerted to any infringements of copyright.