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Portrait of Susan Mitchell by John B. Yeats (1839-1922)

Portrait of Susan Mitchell

Date: 1897
Dimensions: 11.5 × 15.5cm
Medium: Pencil
Collection: Niland Collection
Provenance: Gift from Ms V Franklin in 1959

Description

This drawing was made while Susan Mitchell (1866-1926) was living as a paying guest and companion to Lily Yeats at the Yeats family home in Bedford Park in London. The future poet and journalist who would later work with AE on the Irish Homestead and the Irish Statesman made a very favourable impression on John Butler Yeats. He enjoyed her singing and her intellectual company. Susan also benefited from the experience of living in the Yeats household which was full of cultural conversation and interesting visitors. She later stated in a talk on John Butler Yeats that

‘In the home of Mr. Yeats I found myself in what seemed a wonderful
society, a society where ideas were raised above all other possessions
and where conversation ran on subjects, some of which I had indeed
thought of, but which thinking I regretted in myself …’ (1).

The drawing is a preparatory study for an oil portrait which was completed in 1904 and which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland. Susan wears a white blouse with an elaborate lace collar fastened with a brooch. Yeats has depicted her costume in loose cross hatchings while the sitter’s head and features are more closely delineated. The drawing conveys the immediacy of Susan Mitchell’s presence and it shares the same intimate quality found in other sketches of the artist’s daughters and close female acquaintances with who John Butler Yeats was normally at ease.

(1)Susan Mitchell quoted in William Murphy, Prodigal Father. The Life of John Butler Yeats, (1839-1922), Cornell University Press, 1978, p.207.

Written by Roisin Kennedy

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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