Jack Butler Yeats; Salt Water Ballads
3 Jun. 2021 – 29 May 2022

Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957) grew up in Sligo, in the care of his maternal grandparents Elizabeth & William Pollexfen. From an early age, the young artist was steeped in the rich sea-faring culture of the area, where the ocean connected a small town on Europe’s western periphery with the enigmatic outside world. Throughout Yeats long career as an artist, this fascination with the drama and mystique of the ocean remained a constant amongst his many abiding artistic themes.

Yeats’ affinity with the sea was shared by his good friend, the acclaimed poet John Masefield. Masefield had joined the navy aged just 13 years, and set sail for Chile on his first voyage three years later. Masefield and Jack Yeats bonded over their shared love of art and theatre, tales of the high seas, sea-faring vessels and pirate lore. In the summer of 1901, Masefield holidayed at Yeats home in Devon, where together they fashioned model boats from the rough materials to hand – card board boxes, tin cans, stones, wood and paper, and sailed them in a nearby stretch of water called the Gara River. During that time, Yeats and Masefield also collaborated artistically on a rich treasure trove of oceanic drama, comprised of ballads, miniature plays and illustrations. Chief amongst the human characters that populated their imaginary sea-themed dreamscape was Theodore, a cabin boy and the adopted son of the infamous French pirate, Jean Laffitte.

In 2017, The Niland Collection was gifted a body of work by Jack Butler Yeats, purchased especially by a private collector. Among these works was a wooden linen chest, lined with 19 sea-themed watercolour drawings by the artist. Due to their placement on wood and metal, the drawings had deteriorated somewhat in the 100 years since their creation. In 2020, The Model secured funds from the Heritage Council for their restoration; and in a process led by Dr Patrick McBride, one of Ireland’s leading conservators, each individual work was carefully removed and restored. In an unexpected turn of events, new works by Yeats were revealed underneath the visible drawings, including two unseen watercolours, as well as a number of prints.

This exhibition includes the restored watercolours, as well as the original Linen Chest with replica drawings affixed as the originals were placed. Yeats’ own collection of model and handmade boats, which were also donated by the same benefactor is also on view. The miniature figure of Theodore, the Pirate, with the word ‘help’ written on this back, was found during the conservation work, stowed away in the hull of one of the model boats.

The exhibition continues until 29 May 2022. A newly published illustrated catalogue of The Niland Collection is available from reception. Please enquire or check our website for details of Guide Tours.

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