A life in insight


A childhood reading of a book by the Irish writer Patricia Lynch first introduced writer and art critic Hilary Pyle to an artist whose work became, and has remained, a passion. The book was The Turf Cutter's Daughter, illustrated by Jack B. Yeats, an Irish original possessing echoes of Degas and later of Sickert. Pyle was to go on to write the first biography of the artist, undertaken within eight years of his death in 1957, the last of his immediate family, aged 85. When she wrote, many who knew him were still alive. "It was also a time when he was just about beginning to go out of fashion."

Published in 1970, her Jack B. Yeats - A Biography was well received. A revised edition was published in 1989. In 1994, the National Gallery appointed Pyle as Yeats curator.

Since then she has been busy amassing the gallery's Yeats archive. Jack B. Yeats painted about 1,200 pictures and the National Gallery currently owns 34 - "they are very good ones," she says. There are also about 200 sketchbooks and of course, the artist was also a writer. Sitting in the print-reading room at the gallery, she points to a book-case which houses some of his books, both those written by him as well as some of those he collected. "His books are interesting because he was interested in many things - he built model boats. There are books on boat-building and fishing - he was always doing things."

Her long-term objective - to see a permanent Yeats museum housed in the National Gallery - will be realised on March 2nd. Pyle is the author of several books including a biography of one of Ireland's most interesting and consistently underrated writers, James Stephens; as well as the artist Estella Solomons; and most recently, a life of Susan Langstaff Mitchell, the mystic poet, journalist and cultural rebel, who was a distant relative of Pyle's father. Despite poor health, Mitchell emerges as one of the most interesting women in early 20th-century Ireland, a period rich in interesting females. She was to become close friends with John Yeats and appreciated the aura of intellectual excitement which surrounded the family both at its London home in Bedford Park, and later in Dublin. This latest book continues the singular family story begun in Pyle's previous book, The Sligo-Leitrim World of Kate Cullen (1997), about Mitchell's mother. Pyle is a superb biographer; her prose style is elegant and uncluttered, her observations astute and her narratives vivid and informed. To this, she adds shrewd, insightful and opinionated art criticism.

It is virtually impossible to read anything she has written without the reader taking away a fresh insight. Yeats - Portrait of an Artistic Family is an exciting book which chronologically plots the family story and illustrates it with a generous representation of the family's work. It is particularly interesting in the way it contrasts the work of father and son, John and Jack, two very different artists. It is Pyle who describes the impact Jack Yeats's painting A Morning (1935-36) had on Samuel Beckett. The pair had first met in 1931 and became friendly, often walking together. Beckett then became informed about Yeats's recent work. In 1936 he wrote to another friend, poet Thomas MacGreevy, of A Morning: "It's a long time since I saw a picture I wanted so much." For Beckett, as he mentioned to Yeats, the painting was unusually eloquent: "this inhuman landscape evokes - provokes - the inhuman in oneself". Beckett bought it, borrowing £10 to pay the first instalment, and paying off the rest gradually. The Liffey Swim, painted in 1923, was the first Jack B. Yeats painting acquired by the National Gallery.

Above all, Pyle handles her subjects with sympathetic detachment. Her interest is obvious but she is neither possessive nor defensive of the people she writes about. A feature of her work is her feel for social history, and a vivid sense of Irish cultural life emerges from her writings. Scholarly, methodical and unobtrusive, her approach is based on studying the work and arriving at an understanding. It is the same method she devised as an art critic.

"Art criticism is not a destructive thing, it is creative: it should act as a bridge between the artist and the work and the viewer. The critic should try to understand what the artist is about," she says.

At the heart of Jack B. Yeats's work was life: it was his theme. As his father, the portrait painter John B. Yeats, remarked of his youngest son's earliest work: "His drawings were never of one object, one person or one animal, but of groups engaged in some kind of drama. For instance, one day I picked up one of his drawings and made out that there was a cab and two men and a telescope; one man looking through the small end and the other man looking through the large end. The telescope itself, which was of monstrous size, lying on the ground - and I asked what it meant and was told the man at the larger end was the cab man and he was trying to find out what the other was looking at. At this time Jack's education had not got beyond learning his letters."

Pyle speaks of Jack B. Yeats's youthful quality: "He always remained very young throughout his life. He never lost his curiosity, his sense of wonder." She sees the Yeats family as an extraordinary collection of individuals. Unlike many commentators, she has never made the mistake of underestimating the phenomenal influence of John Butler Yeats, a fine artist whose mercurial intelligence and restless, rampaging genius were to prove more handicap than advantage to himself - and certainly made life difficult for his children on a practical level, if not on an intellectual one. Blessed with a mentor of stature in Isaac Butt, a close friend of his father, John B. Yeats's career at the Bar could have been guaranteed success. But Yeats was determined to be an artist: he succeeded - as would his eldest son William, the poet; his daughter, Susan Mary `Lily'; and his youngest son, Jack. Pyle says too many have tended to deny John Yeats's regard for his wife, the once-beautiful, passive and reticent Susan Pollexfen, who was to suffer a stroke at 40 and spend the rest of her life, until her death some years later in 1900, caught in a twilight zone. "He did care for her and always believed she would be the mother of a poet."

Calm and unassuming, Hilary Pyle has the graciousness of another age. She has a wonderful voice and speaks in deliberate, well-crafted sentences - again, in an age of fractured speech, a skill no longer commonly mastered. Dressed in navy and black, her white hair swept up, at home in the National Gallery, she is far happier discussing art, history and her interest in place names than she is in talking about herself. Content to discuss her children or her love of words, she becomes wary when asked about herself. All of this changes when she discusses the Yeats clan or her interest in Russian icons. She now paints icons as a hobby, deferring strictly to the traditional techniques.

Hers is the unflamboyant demeanour of a serious academic, her only vaguely arty flourish is her earrings, which are not a pair; one is a mid blue, egg-shaped stone, the other a white pig. A mother of four - including twin daughters - she is the third of four children born to an unusually cultivated Dublin family not unlike the Yeats household. Scholarship, a love of music and an appreciation of the arts were seen simply as essential aspects of life in the Pyle household.

Her father eventually became professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin, and her mother hailed from a family of musicians, with origins in Mannheim in Germany. Both her sons are musicians, the eldest is an organist, the youngest a pianist. From Alexandra College in Dublin, she went on to Trinity where she took a degree in English and Irish. The next step was Girton College, Cambridge for post-graduate work. Of her time there, she says helpfully: "It was awful." There were compensations, however, and she refers to a man who lived near the college, a Mr Eade, who was a remarkable collector and invited students to visit and share tea.

As a schoolgirl she had begun looking at paintings and went to summer schools - decidedly different then to the major growth industry they are now. These summer schools were about art and through them she came under the influence of James White. "He taught me how to look at a picture and for that I will always be grateful to him," she says.

Following her post-graduate work, she spent two years at the Ulster Museum, where her brief included costume and archaeology. While there, she worked with Anne Crookshank, another major influence. They became friends and often went on holiday together, in the company of artist Deborah Brown. Like a detective pursuing a trail, Crookshank tracked the story of European art, while Brown responded with an artist's feeling for space and Pyle observed. These travels proved hugely educational for her, learning from the contrasting responses, all the while developing her own method for reading art. Having worked in the library at Trinity College, she then joined the National Gallery.

She began reviewing Northern art exhibitions for this newspaper when she lived in Belfast, and continued when she and her vicar husband moved to Cork, where they lived for 20 years. "I reviewed the southern shows for the Irish Times and then did the Dublin shows for the Cork Examiner." All the while, she was also lecturing at the National Gallery and writing. On return to Dublin, she returned to the gallery, while her husband is now priest-in-charge of St John's Church in Sandymount. As difficult as it may be to believe now, considering his international reputation, at about the time Pyle was first researching her Yeats book in the mid 1960s, the artist had just begun to go out of fashion. All this has changed dramatically and I can remember writing a news story from London in 1989 when The Harvest Moon sold at auction for £250,000, introducing Yeats to the world of big prices. Since then his market value has continued to rise.

Jack B. Yeats and his father are very different artists. John Yeats was of the 19th century and remained there artistically. He was also, unlike his son, a portrait painter. Jack's art initially belonged to the physical world but with time, a mythic dimension evolved. He also moved with his time and became a modern painter, something his father neither sought to become, nor could have, had he so desired. Jack B. Yeats, the most practical of men and also the most playful, did reinvent himself many times and was comfortable in several genres. It is significant that his career began as an illustrator and that his move to oil from watercolour was gradual. How does Pyle view Yeats's ability to change direction as an artist? "A post-modern artist would look on his method as a form of deconstruction, a way of re-creating what is essential to the painting. Yeats's constant theme was life, he studied it by direct observation. But he wasn't long in realising that memory, emotion, experience and all the paraphernalia we carry from our inherited background are part of it all and reshape the image. In fact, memory itself became a theme."

After living with his wife in Devon, they moved to Ireland, settling at first in Greystones, Co Wicklow. In 1917 he moved to Dublin, where he lived for 40 years without ever relinquishing his love of the west of Ireland.

Unlike his brother William, Jack was not interested in cultivating artistic masks. "His early work looks objective and like pure narrative. He has the crooks and the baddies as well as the heroes. But it is very much coloured by the idealism of the age he lived in when people thought they were at last getting Home Rule by peaceful means.

"In his later work he is drifting in on himself, so that you are seeing a sort of inner life, even if it is just the view of a landscape."

She admires the people she has written about and praises the quality of these people of late 19th- and early 20th-century Ireland. "I think the people of that time had a sense of history and knew they were part of it." Just as W.B. Yeats was in tune in words, Jack was at one with painting. "Both took their era into their understanding."

Red-Headed Rebel - the Life of Susan Mitchell by Hilary Pyle is published by Woodfield Press, price £12. The catalogue for the new Yeats Museum, Yeats - Portrait of an Artistic Family by Hilary Pyle is published by the National Gallery of Ireland, price £25.

The Yeats Museum at the National Gallery will be opened by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, on March 2nd and is open to the public from March 3rd