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Book Review The other Yeats: a portrait of the painterBy Peter McDermott

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

JACK YEATS: Painter Triumphant, by Bruce Arnold. Published by Yale University Press. 418 pp. $45.

Several years after the death of his wife, the portrait painter John Butler Yeats wrote in a letter to a friend, "I became engaged on two or three days acquaintance, and it was not love at all . . . but just destiny."

Just destiny or not, the union produced this century’s most famous Irish poet and its most famous Irish painter. However, while William Butler Yeats came to be regarded as a giant in English literature, his brother Jack, born six years after him in 1871, remained an obscure figure.

Jack B. Yeats, though, did find honor in his own land, even if he was never very famous there during his lifetime. When he died in Dublin in 1957, the country’s most senior politicians attended his funeral. Decades earlier, as he approached his 40th birthday, he and his wife gave up an idyllic home in Devon, England, to live in Ireland. "Unlike so many of his contemporaries, perhaps even including his brother, he made an artistic, emotional and physical commitment to Ireland," writes Bruce Arnold in this fine biography of the painter.

This is in contrast to his father, who went on a trip to New York in 1907 and stayed until his death 15 years later. But then the Yeatses were so different from each other in most respects. While John Butler Yeats was an extrovert and a superb conversationalist, his elder son was arrogant and lofty, and his younger son reserved. And whereas the father was an agnostic freethinker, and Willie drawn to the occult and spiritualism, Jack, throughout his life, adhered to the Church of Ireland faith of his forebears.

The brothers shared the nationalism of their father, who was a friend of Isaac Butt, the founder of the Home Rule movement. Willie, though, was always at the center of things, controlling organizations, or trying to; Jack didn’t get involved and his views weren’t widely known. The two were often ideologically poles apart. When, for instance, the great poet was flirting with the right-wing Blueshirts, his brother’s sympathies were with Fianna Fail and social radicalism.

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John Butler Yeats put some differences down to nurture; he wrote that Jack "spent too long in Sligo." All of the Yeats children stayed for long periods in early childhood with their mother’s family in the west of Ireland, and loved it, while their bohemian father tried to make a living elsewhere. But Jack, the only one said not to be terrified by their grandfather, the shipowner and merchant William Pollexfen, lived there continuously from the age of 8 through 16.

The Pollexfen home, Merville, had 14 bedrooms and domestic staff. In old age, Jack’s sister Lilly recalled, "Often and often were we in the nursery wakened in chilly dawns, to be kissed and cried over by sad emigrants, grandmama tearful and silent standing behind the girl, dressed as if was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and not 4 o’clock in the morning." In his recent first volume of his life of W.B. Yeats, Roy Foster says that children at that time, in that class, were often closer to the servants than to adult members of the family. One such emigrant to America, Ellie Connolly, was said to have taught Willie to read. Foster, who is stronger than Arnold on the social context, stresses that the Yeatses’ Sligo connections were not "Big House" Anglo-Irish, like, for example, the Gore-Booths, Countess Markievicz’s family. They belonged, rather, to the Irish Protestant bourgeoisie.

Despite’s their son-in-law’s lack of commercial success, the Pollexfens didn’t discourage their grandson’s artistic ambitions and Jack went off to London, where he joined his parents and three siblings. At art college, he met Cottie White, with whom he had a long and happy marriage.

In the period just before the photographer replaced the illustrator in mass circulation publications, Yeats found a niche working for the London Illustrated News and other papers. There he could give free rein to his love of music hall, the circus, boxing, racing and the low life generally.

Horses were his stock in trade when they moved London. His facility in this area attracted attention after he began his career as a creative artist showing in solo exhibitions. One critic wrote that Yeats had "a marvelous gift for expressing violent and rapid movement with brush and pencil."

The gift with horses, though, has inflated the prices of some of Yeats’s paintings, in his biographer’s opinion. Arnold argues that his work has sometimes attracted "more money than sense." He says that Yeats was an "uneven" painter, sometimes "boring" and "quite capable of painting bad canvasses." Nonetheless he writes: "Jack Yeats stands as an isolated, giant figure in Irish twentieth-century art. He dominated solely through the talent, magic and inventiveness of his painting."

Yeats was convinced of, in Arnold’s words, "his own unique grasp of Ireland." This led some, notably his close friend Thomas MacGreevy, to interpret his work in nationalist terms. Samuel Beckett, another friend, argued for the opposite position, believing that a painter, no less than a writer, should be concerned with universal and eternal themes. Arnold says that Yeats himself would have taken a midway position. At one point, Arnold tacitly makes the case for the Beckett’s view when discussing Yeats’s 1914 painting "Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory," which depicts a flower seller’s poignant gesture the day after the military shot three civilians in Dublin. He writes: "the nobility and the feeling in the event itself is what matters and Jack’s interest was in expressing the instant of human emotion and not the abstraction of ‘national feeling.’ "

Overall, Arnold has done a splendid job. And the book, which is in large format, has more than 240 black and white illustrations, including scores of photographs, and 16 color plates. "Jack Yeats" is highly recommended.

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