Eloquence on draught: the Yeats sketchbooks


Jack B Yeats was known as a removed observer. A new exhibition gives an insight into the outsider

Probably the most celebrated artist Ireland has produced, Jack B Yeats remains a contradictory figure. Quintessentially Irish, he pursued the early part of his commercial career in England. Although he articulated myriad aspects of communal life, including political events and popular entertainments from the fairground to the theatre, and from the music hall to race meetings, he was nonetheless a relatively remote presence, at one remove from the public arena.

He was an observer who sympathised with the standpoint of the outsider while maintaining a fervent belief in the centrality of community and national identity. He didn’t like to comment on his work, perhaps because his paintings are in themselves such public expressions of his concerns, profoundly theatrical statements imbued with intense passion and narrative sweep.

Now, for the first time, we have an unprecedented insight into the personal as well as the public Yeats. The Sketchbooks of Jack B Yeats, 1897-1955, an exhibition that opens today at the National Gallery of Ireland, curated by Donal Maguire and Pauline Swords, shows us the initial stages of what became more finished paintings and graphic works. In 1996 the artist’s niece Anne Yeats presented the gallery with an extraordinarily rich body of material, including 204 sketchbooks, for its Yeats archive. That translates into about 8,000 sketches and 2,000 written pages. There are 150 images in the show.

Yeats drew constantly. Out of the studio he preferred sketchbooks he could slip into his pocket, especially the double-brass Rowney Ringbacks that measured just 9cm by 13cm, so each work is in a sense a miniature. Professionally, he initially made his living through commercial illustration, and the sketchbooks confirm that he was a brilliant observational draughtsman, able to distil a complex, dynamic scene into surprisingly few eloquent lines in graphite and ink. These were very often augmented with crayon and watercolour, at least up to 1910 or so; thereafter, he tended to use just pencil.

That first decade of the 20th century was also his most prolific in terms of sketchbooks, accounting for more than 100 of them. He summed up his progression in this way: “I believe that the painter always begins by expressing himself with line – that is, by the most obvious means: then he becomes aware that line, once so necessary, is hemming him in, and as soon as he feels strong enough, he breaks out of its confines.”

This is dramatically evident in a two-page sketch from 1943, a view of morning light spilling over rooftops. In the blurs, smudges and scribbles of graphite and crayon, one senses the artist’s frustration that he doesn’t have the freedom of oil paint to hand.

A proportion of the sketches inevitably contain the seeds of full-scale paintings either overall or, more commonly, in terms of detail and mood. Collectively they were an expanding, nutritive mass from which the paintings grew. They also make up a visual diary in which Yeats recorded daily thoughts and impressions. Each one was inscribed with a date and a location. The archive begins in 1897, when he and his wife, Cottie, moved to Devon and he began the shift from commercial illustration to fine art. Thereafter the sketchbooks cover his travels and daily life continually. Ireland featured large in his work on the basis of regular visits even before he and Cottie moved back to Ireland, in 1910, settling first in Greystones, then in Donnybrook and later on Fitzwilliam Square.

He had an omnivorous eye and was drawn to all manner of popular entertainment, including “what were considered to be low-brow variety shows in Dublin and London”, the circus, bouts at the Wonderland boxing club in London, and horse and pony races. He loved the water and boats. Street characters come vividly to life, and he had a knack for seeing archetypes in everyday encounters, giving individuals the iconic, almost mythological weight and presence that characterise his great paintings of Dublin city life.

There’s a study of Synge made in 1905, resting during one of the pair’s reportage journeys in the west of Ireland for the Manchester Guardian; Pádraig Pearse addressing a Volunteers’ meeting in Dundrum in 1914; a lovely sketch of Cottie playing croquet in Devon; a brisk pen portrait of “the governor”, his father, John B Yeats – a “world-class talker” as Roy Foster describes him – in conversation with the lawyer and collector John Quinn in a Dublin cafe in 1902; the poet John Masefield, a friend and collaborator, sailing a model boat.

As well as identifiable individuals, some of the types or archetypes that feature prominently in the paintings include music-hall entertainers, clowns and other circus performers, jockeys, the tragicomic figure of a Pierrot and the unfortunate fairground “barrel man”, a target for missiles from the audience, who became the symbolic victim in the painting Humanity’s Alibi (1947).

Labelled “End of Circus”, Yeats’s study of a performer going out into daylight captures the transition from the fantasy of performance to the real world. Made at a circus in Co Galway in 1899, it became a central motif, and the rapid sketch can be seen as a template for several major paintings.

There are fine, expansive views of Clifden in Co Galway; of Sligo Bay from Oyster Island at Rosses Point; of Dartmouth during a royal visit in 1902; of the mine works at Glendalough; and of many locations in Dublin and elsewhere. One brisk sketch, headed “Where the people were shot on Sunday”, depicts a spot at Bachelors Walk, on Dublin’s north quays, where British soldiers killed three people in July 1914.

The book accompanying the exhibition is beautiful in itself. The compact, horizontal format suits the sketchbook pages perfectly, and its designer, Fidelma Slattery, has managed to preserve and convey the spirit of Yeats throughout. In addition, there is a tablet presentation that allows visitors to browse through four complete sketchbooks as well as other material from the archive.

The Sketchbooks of Jack B Yeats, 1897-1955 is at the National Gallery of Ireland until May 5th

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