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An Island Funeral by Jack B. Yeats (1871 - 1957)

An Island Funeral

Date: 1923
Dimensions: 91.5 × 61cm
Medium: Oil on canvas
Collection: Niland Collection
Provenance: Purchased by public subscription from the Capuchin Annual in 1962

Description:

This sharply observed painting depicts a coffin being brought from the remote Blasket Islands, off the West Kerry coast, to the mainland for burial in the graveyard at Ventry. There was no graveyard on the islands. The coffin is accompanied by a subdued group of mourners, including women wearing traditional black shawls. They contrast with their younger female companions who are instead attired in fashionable modern dress. On the left hand side of the composition another boat can be seen coming alongside. Its crew, who look towards the funeral boat, add to the strong sense of community evoked by the painting. The work emphasises the importance of ritual and custom in the lives of remote communities in Ireland in a period of political turbulence. As in other works of this period Yeats sets traditional practices against the increasing modernity of Irish life. The image of the boat carrying a coffin across the water has a classical connotation in that it recalls the story of Charon ferrying the souls of the dead across the river Styx to Hades.

Written by Roisin Kennedy

Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957)

Born 1871, London, United Kingdom.
Died 1957, Dublin, Ireland.

Jack B. Yeats was the youngest son of the portrait painter John Butler Yeats and the brother of the writer William Butler Yeats. Though he was born in London, Jack spent most of his childhood in Sligo in the care of his maternal grandparents. It was a place that influenced him deeply and he later said that every painting he produced “had a thought of Sligo in it”.

Jack studied in London at the South Kensington School of Art and later at the Westminster School of Art, though he was largely self-taught and had his own distinct style from the beginning. While still at school he was working as an illustrator and contributing to various publications such as Paddock Life, the Daily Graphic and the Vegetarian.

His early work, mostly in watercolour, focuses on the Sligo of his boyhood. These works display his emerging interest in the people and places of every day life- the market day, the sailor, and the races. In 1894 he married his fellow art student Mary Cottenham White, and they settled in England. He held his first solo show in London in 1897 and shortly afterwards he began to focus solely on Irish subject matter. In 1910 he returned to live in Ireland. The same year he began to contribute illustrations to the satirical publication Punch under the pseudonym W. Bird, and over the next 30 years he supplied the magazine with over five hundred drawings.

In 1905 Yeats toured Connemara with the writer John M Synge who had been commissioned to write a series of articles for the Manchester Guardian on life in the west of Ireland. This trip, coupled with his upbringing in Sligo, made an indelible impression on the artist. His wide-ranging interest in all of humanity led him to depict subjects ranging from street scenes, to boxing matches, the races, and funerals.

In 1910 he returned to Ireland and settled first in Bray and later in Dublin. He became an associate member of the RHA in 1915 and a full member the following year. He was a founder member of the Society of Dublin Painters in 1920, and in 1922 he participated in the Exposition d’Art Irlandais in Paris. He won the silver and the bronze medals at the VIIIe Olympiade in Paris in 1924 for the painting The Liffey Swim.

Yeats’ early paintings were in watercolour and he was over thirty by the time he began to work regularly in oils. For years his style remained essentially conservative, but in the mid-1920s a profound change began to take place. Yeats’s handling grew much freer, his forms were defined by brushstrokes rather than by line, his colours grew richer and more luminous and his earlier realism gradually gave way to a moody, intimate and highly personal romanticism. These tendencies grew even more marked over the next two decades, until in his final years when his subject-matter is sometimes buried and almost obliterated by rich impasto, bravura brushwork and flame-like areas of colour.

He exhibited widely in Dublin and London, and in 1932 held solo shows at the Ferragail Galleries and the Barbizon Museum of Irish Art, New York. He first showed with Victor Waddington Galleries, Dublin in 1943, and continued to exhibit there until his death. A major retrospective of his work opened at the Tate Gallery, London in 1948. Jack B Yeats died in Dublin on March 28 1957.



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