Date: c. 1900
Dimensions: 11 × 16.5cm
Collection: Niland Collection
Provenance: Presented by James A. Healy in New York to Sligo County Library and Museum. In memory of his parents, John and Catherine Healy, 1966.
John O’Leary was a favorite subject of John Butler Yeats. The National Gallery of Ireland owns three portraits in oil of him by Yeats and there are several drawings in existence, of which the Niland Collection is one of the most striking. O’Leary was arrested in 1865 for his involvement in Fenian propaganda. He was sentenced to 20 years. He spent nine years in penal servitude in England and the rest living in exile in Paris. Upon his return to Dublin in 1885, O’Leary was a member of the Contemporary Club whose meetings Yeats also attended and this was where he first sketched the impressive bearded figure of the Fenian. O’Leary’s gentlemanly behaviour and his knowledge of nationalism and cultural matters made a great impression on John and William Butler Yeats. WB regarded O’Leary as the ideal personification of Irish patriotism to which he later referred in his opening lines of September 1913, ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, Its with O’Leary in the grave’.
The Niland Collection drawing was made in the home of Mrs. Alice Stopford Green, an historian and a passionate Irish nationalist. It is inscribed ‘John O’Leary, when dining with Mrs. Richard Green’. Stopford Green, the Irish born widow of J.R. Green, entertained significant literary and political figures at her home in Kensington Square in London, where this drawing was made. O’Leary along with Arthur Griffith and Edward Carson were regular guests. She returned to live in Ireland in 1918 and was made a senator of the Irish Free State in 1922.
Written by Roisin Kennedy
About the Artist
John Butler Yeats (1839 – 1922)
Born 1839, Tullyish, Co. Down, Ireland.
Died 1922, New York, United States.
John Butler Yeats (JBY), father of William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), Jack B. Yeats (1871 – 1957), Susan Mary (Lily) Yeats (1866 -1948), and Elizabeth Corbet (Lolly) Yeats (1868-1940) was born at Tullyish, Co. Down. John was the son of a Church of Ireland rector, the Revd W. B. Yeats. John was educated at a preparatory school in Liverpool and then in the Isle of Man subsequently graduating at the age of twenty -three, with honours and a prize in political economy from Trinity College, Dublin.
In 1862, at the age of twenty -four, he married Susan Pollexfen (1841 – 1900), the daughter of a Sligo ship merchant, whose family originated from Cornwall. Soon after his marriage he began to study for the Irish Bar, to which he was called in 1866, but his efforts to earn a living in this field proved difficult and he abandoned law to become a professional painter instead. To this end, Yeats set out for London, enrolling at Heatherley’s Art School.
From 1868, onwards he moved backwards and forwards between England and Ireland devoting more and more of his time to portraiture and setting out to capture everyone who interested him, particularly the leading political figures, writers and talkers of the day.
He exhibited regularly at the RHA and helped stage an exhibition of Whistler’s work at the Dublin Sketching Club in 1884. He was elected a member of the RHA in 1892. In 1901, the RHA rejected his work but his luck turned when Sarah Purser organised a joint retrospective exhibition of paintings by Nathaniel Hone and himself in the same year. For Yeats it was a pivotal moment. Hugh Lane saw his forty-four pictures on display and commissioned the artist to paint a series of portraits of significant figures in Irish cultural life.
John Butler Yeats travelled with his daughter Lily to New York in 1907 ostensibly for a short visit. After several months Lily returned to Ireland without her father who remained in New York for the rest of his life. Without any regular income the elderly Yeats led a precarious existence and relied on the support and friendship of his admirers in America. John Quinn, the Irish-American lawyer and collector, was undoubtedly the most significant of these.
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