Dimensions: 23 × 30.5cm
Medium: Pen, ink and watercolour
Collection: Niland Collection
Provenance: Presented to Sligo County Library and Museum, 1966 by James A. Healy as a memorial to his parents John and Catherine Healy.
This is the original drawing for the frontispiece of John Millington Synge’s The Aran Islands (1907), to which Yeats contributed 12 pen and ink illustrations. The original drawings were later hand-coloured in watercolour when Yeats exhibited them.
Yeats met Synge in 1905 when the two men were commissioned to produce a series of articles on the Congested Districts Board for the Manchester Guardian. They travelled together through Mayo and Galway in the summer of 1905, Synge gathering information for his articles while Yeats sketched potential images. The meeting with Synge had a profound impact on Yeats who was impressed by the writer’s knowledge and understanding of life in the West of Ireland, and also by his personality.
Synge spoke Irish and had spent several summers living on Inishmore, as recounted in his book. While most of Yeats’s illustrations to the Aran Islands show the islanders at work, the frontispiece shows an islander standing on the coastline looking out to sea. He wears traditional Aran Island costume as described by Synge. This includes his hat, his waistcoat or bainín jacket, his flannel trousers tied with a plated crios belt and his cow-skin pampooties. According to Synge’s account of the islanders, their clothes suited their life on the islands. The pampooties, for example, enabled them to clamber across its rocky terrain. Yeats’s frontispiece emulates Synge’s combination of ethnography with his keenly felt admiration for the islanders and their way of life. The man’s confident pose and distinctive appearance lend him an air of dignity. The difficulty of his existence is hinted at by the rocky outcrop in the background of the drawing.
Written by Roisin Kennedy
About the Artist
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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