Several years ago I took a phone call from a gentleman with a European accent that I couldn’t immediately put my finger on. He was calling to say that he wanted to leave The Niland Collection a Jack B Yeats painting in his will. I thanked him enormously and said that, although this was an incredibly generous offer, I hoped it would be a long, long time before the painting actually arrived in Sligo and we said goodbye.
A couple of months back, as our major Jack B. Yeats retrospective, The Outsider, came to a close, I received another phone call from the same man. This time he announced that because The Outsider had been such a success, he wanted the painting to, as he put it “go home to Sligo” sooner rather than later. And so I found myself last week at his house on the edge of Copenhagen to take possession of the work.
The watercolour is an early political work painted by Yeats in 1898, just after the young artist witnessed the centenary celebrations of the 1798 Rebellion. Jack had been on a visit back to Sligo when, to mark the centenary, The Teeling Monument was erected at Collooney. The pomp and circumstance of the event surely struck a cord with Jack who loved the drama of Sligo life. However the more serious concern of Ireland’s nationhood, that this event brought to the fore, also impacted on Jack. From this time onwards he became more convinced of the Sinn Fein cause, and went on to paint several, more overtly political works throughout the 1910s and ‘20s. For that reason this painting, entitled simply Political, 1898 is an important early work, marking as it does, a turning point in Jack’s subject matter. Political makes a fantastic addition to The Niland Collection and relates very well to the existing holding especially to works such as A Political Meeting, 1905, The Funeral of Harry Boland, 1922, and Communicating with Prisoners, 1924, which viewed together show the development of Jack’s political subject matter.
During my visit, the donor explained that he had inherited his love of Yeats from his Irish mother, and showed me several other paintings by Jack that she had gathered. One work in particular stood out. A closer examination revealed it to be the earliest known oil painting by Jack, dating from 1897. Yeats would have been just 26 years of age at the time and it would be 13 more years before he began to work permanently and confidently in oils. For me it was a great treat to see an oil work by Yeats that predates even his watercolour period (1898-1910). My anonymous friend must have seen my face light up, as with a twinkle in his eye, he swiftly took it back from my hands saying ‘but you’re not getting that one’.
Political, 1898, which he has very generously donated to The Niland Collection is certainly just as special and will be on view in the next Niland Collection exhibition Ireland in the Twentieth Century, which opens on 8 October.