Lara, Jack B.Yeats and a wintery night in Mayo

Lara Byrne, Assistant Curator at The Model, recently brought a tour of forty people around the Jack B. Yeats’ exhibition ‘ Jack B. Yeats and the west of Ireland’ currently on show in the Ballina Arts Centre in County Mayo. Below she blogs about her first experience on tour since 2007.


I didn’t get on the road until 5.30pm and had to be in Ballina to give a tour on an exhibition, Jack B. Yeats & The West of Ireland (drawn from the Niland Collection) in the Ballina Arts Centre at seven – the only thing was the weather was pretty desperate, squalling wind and rain, making the drive down pretty hairy. I found their temporary quarters in the Ballina Civic Centre 10 minutes before kick off. Like The Model, they are are going through a major re-development, which includes a brand new extension to their existing premises on Barrett Street, with dance studios, an extra gallery and a 250 seat theatre. While they are at the beginning of their new works, which will be ready in a year, we at The Model are nearly finished, with doors opening to the public in the next two months.

I hadn’t done a tour of the Yeats paintings from The Niland Collection in two years, so the evening before I had a quick recap over my notes and a flick through the world expert on Yeats; Hilary Pyle – a hefty 3 volume tome on Yeats. I had twenty-three paintings to talk about, all drawn from The Niland Collection which I know well, but with only one slight hitch, I didn’t know how they were going to be arranged in the gallery space. So with 10 minutes to spare before the talk (thanks to the weather) I had just enough time for a quick chat with the director, Sean Walsh and a speedy run through the hang. All the old favourites were there with a really nice cross section of Yeats’ work on display, from his earliest pen & ink illustrations, through his watercolours and his late work- the boldly painted oil paintings.

About forty interested members of the public had got into their cars on a horrible winters’ evening to come to the tour, I was delighted with the turn out and it was great to see the genuine love that the people of Mayo have for Jack B. Yeats life and work.

After the introductions, I started with a late oil painting that Yeats had presented to Sligo County Council in 1954, which also happens to be one of my personal favourites, Leaving Far Rosses. My reasoning for beginning the tour with such a late work was because its shows Jack walking the beach in Rosses Point, wearing his distinctive broad-brimmed hat, in the company of his beloved wife, Cottie and his favourite Uncle, George Pollexfen. This painting had a special resonances with Yeats, as he had given this painting to his wife as a birthday present the year before she died in 1947. Also his uncle George had died in 1910, so this painting was probably a memory of the last time the three of them were together on a blustery day in Sligo. Also this was a really good painting to start with, as I could give the background of The Niland Collection and describe how, through Nora Niland’s sheer indefatiable energy, the Collection had come into genesis.

It was during the early 1900s that Jack’s paintings were to become peopled with entertainers, clowns, folk from travelling fairs, street sellers and race meetings, all inspired from his travels with the playwright and writer John Millington Synge. Both men had been commissioned by ‘The Manchester Guardian’ (now just The Guardian) in the Summer of 1905 to report on the congested districts in the west of Ireland. They travelled from Connemara to Clifden and then took the Long Car, (horse drawn carriages brought in by Bianconi) onto Belmullet and finally to Swinford. He always looked back on this time in his life with great affection — and had created an invaluable archive of sketchbooks, a visual diary, which he was to draw on for the rest of his life.

Looking around the room, those figures were all there, from the street seller in Market Day, the entertainers in Singing ‘The Beautiful Picture’, The Singing Clown(Johnny Patterson singing ‘Bridget O’Donoghue’), and the horses and the distinctive Yeatsian figures in The Strand Races, He Wins, White Shower and Crest of the Hill. All of these people would have summed up for Jack that unquantifiable ‘western spirit’.

I finished the tour with The Sea and the Lighthouse, a sad but beautiful oil painting, Jack using that dark indigo blue that he used so much in his late oils — painted the year died Cottie died — it shows a lone figure, that same broad brimmed hat, held this time, in his hand by his side, gazing out to sea. A dark cloud looms head, but to the left of the picture, a beam of light is breaking through. Jack lived for another 10 years after Cottie, they never had any children and possibly because Jack’s obsession with his painting life, he never took on any pupils, although he gave painting advice to his niece Anne Yeats, who cared for his archive after his death.

In the last few years of his life, he lived in Portobello Nursing Home in Dublin and had stopped painting. As he said himself, he had painted everything he had needed too. During this time, he was visited by his artist-friend Oscar Kokoshcha and a young John Berger. Also a young trainee doctor, Brian O’Doherty, took to visiting him and they became close friends before Jack died. Brian went on to become an important figure on the Irish and International art scene and in July of this year Brian is to co-curate the major Yeats show at The Model.

The feedback from the tour was great and afterwards I was talking to one man-although I didn’t catch his name – who told me a lovely story about a friend of his who was a traveling entertainer and had owned a trunk full of his tricks of the trade. This trunk was painted with scenes by Jack B Yeats and although it has long since disappeared, his friend reckons he would be a wealthy man if he still had it.

After the show I managed to get some late night food in Dillons, a sweet little pub set within a courtyard, with a wrought iron Victorian stairs and balcony outside. In no time I was back on the road to Sligo where the weather had softened so the drive back was less as traumatic, especially with a head filled with Yeats paintings. I can’t wait for the July exhibition in The Model, with its promise of the some of the late great paintings by the man himself�. roll on the Summer.

This July, The Model will be opening a major Jack B. Yeats retrospective at the new Model building. In the meantime, take a visit to the Ballina Arts Centre to quench that Yeatsian thirst.