The oddly public secret life of Jack B Yeats

Ireland’s greatest painter, Jack B Yeats, had a secret life

Ireland’s greatest painter, Jack B Yeats, had a secret life. The secret was not of the usual kind, having nothing to do with sex. It was also a strangely public kind of secret. He had another persona, an alter ego who was, for much of his career, rather better known than the painter of increasingly abstract and mystical images.

In his book Family Secrets: William Butler Yeats and His Relatives, William Michael Murphy recalls Yeats’s sister Lily confronting his wife, Cottie: “When she faced Cottie with her discovery in 1913, Cottie ‘became so red and embarrassed she had to tell’.” What was this great embarrassment she had to admit? That Jack B Yeats was also “W Bird” – a truth that the painter himself continued to deny up to his death, in 1957. And who was “W Bird”? A prominent cartoonist for Punch magazine. Bird was no momentary aberration. Yeats did more than 500 cartoons for Punch between 1910 and 1948, 56 of them on display at the National Gallery’s fascinating exhibition Jack of All Trades, which ends tomorrow.

It is one of those seemingly small shows that open up some very big questions.

The most obvious is: what did Yeats have to hide? There’s a relatively simple answer to be found in the nature of Punch itself. Punch’s editorial line on Ireland was actually quite nuanced, but the magazine was also well known for John Tenniel’s virulently racist cartoons, in which the Irish are depicted as apelike and subhuman. Yeats’s reluctance to be identified as a Punch stalwart is, in this context, easily understood. But other things are at stake in his secret life: the idea of what it means to be an artist, particularly an Irish artist.


Jack Yeats is a figure in the history of modernism. He is linked, obviously, to his brother William, whose transformation from local romantic to high modernist is paralleled by his own. But he is also an important influence on Samuel Beckett: the abstract spaces and isolated figures of Yeats’s late paintings are also those of Beckett’s late plays.

The essential gesture of modernism was to draw a sharp line between commerce and art. The artist had to be seen as a member of a species different from, and even hostile to, the jobbing craftsman. Artists stood alone, beyond the anonymous industrial masses. This was, like all such gestures, an invention. One of the reasons Jack Yeats worked so assiduously for Punch was because he needed, and liked, the money. He was, as W Bird, a worker in an industrial process. And that was, in the myth of modernism, a dark secret. It is striking, indeed, that one of W Bird’s running jokes is at the expense of the self-important “artist”. One drawing has two artists squabbling over who owns the sunset sketched in the background. Bird could mock the kind of mythology that Yeats preserved.

But Jack Yeats was also involved in another constructed identity – the Irishness that his brother was so busily, and so brilliantly, inventing.

William and his collaborators devised an Irishness that was everything England was not: rural instead of urban, peasant instead of industrial, ancient instead of modern, romantic instead of utilitarian. Jack’s images, from his illustrations for Synge’s Playboy of the Western World to his great paintings of horses in mystical landscapes, largely cohere with this vision. His nationalist contemporaries liked to imagine Yeats as a “Gaelic” or “Celtic” artist.

But an awful lot was left over. The W Bird cartoons are not “Irish” at all. They’re about things that are either “English” or merely contemporary: the foibles of the class system, the strangeness of new technologies, a dock strike, female fashions, votes for women, tariff reform. Yeats as Bird has permission to be topical, irreverent, absurd. He puts his finger on coming developments like television. He eviscerates social pretensions in a way that seems as pointed now as it ever did. One wonderful cartoon, showing upper-class guests at a grand hotel being given the “experience” of a whaling vessel, is entitled “Freak hospitality is still extremely fashionable” – a mordant comment on the appetite of the wealthy for endless sensations. A cartoon of a wine merchant dictating copy for his pretentious catalogue – “a bizarre wine with camaraderie but not of the extreme left” – would sit comfortably in the New Yorker today.

Discovering this whole other side of Jack Yeats is like finding that his brother Willie wrote detective stories on the side or that Beckett earned a few bob by writing witty greeting-card messages. But it also reminds us that artists don’t just make images: they also make public images. The vigour and breadth of Yeats’s cartoons (they’re all done in a quick, loose, vivid style that is at odds with the much more highly wrought norm of the time) suggests that he did them for pleasure as well as money. So does the fact that he kept W Bird alive even after JB Yeats had become critically successful and financially secure. But had Bird emerged from the closet, Yeats’s public image as a serious painter and a distinctively Irish artist might have suffered. He was both of those things, of course. But like most really good artists he was also a lot more. Jack of All Trades is a splendidly subversive little show, well worth a last look this weekend.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer