Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Sligo Yeatses Come to Town

When I opened the Niland Gallery in Sligo, some years ago, I gave unstinting praise to the memory of Nora Niland whom I had known since 1958 or 1959, sharing her enthusiasm for the Yeats family and for the various projects in which h she became involved. These included the Yeats Summer School, which she helped to create, the Sligo County Museum, which she had already established, and the Jack Yeats paintings which she shrewdly acquired over a number of years.

It has always been a matter of bewilderment that, apart from individual paintings for exhibitions of Jack’s work, there has never been a comprehensive showing of what she achieved during a lifetime of assiduous and dedicated work on behalf of Sligo. She was not from the town but, like many ‘blow-ins’, she gave far more to it than its own people did.

I knew her well enough to understand the kind of defiance she had about getting her way in difficult purchases and loans, in persuading others to help, and in forcing reluctant officials to grit their teeth and celebrate – from time to time – the glories she had brought to the town.

She knew me well enough to engage my help, when I became a journalist in 1961, and I involved myself in articles and lectures, some of them at the Yeats Summer School, others elsewhere in the town. It was never easy. I suspect even today, however much the climate has changed, Sligo still has its ups and downs over the arts. One great achievement only grows in importance, however, and that is the collection of Yeats paintings she formed.

Not all of the Sligo Yeats paintings have been brought to the National Gallery. I regret very much the absence of one of the gems from the collection, G’Morrow, Strawberry, a watercolour painted in 1903. It was shown in that year in Jack Yeats’s August show, ‘Sketches of Life in the West of Ireland’, where Seamus O’Sullivan saw and fell in love with it. He was a journalist working for Arthur Griffith on the United Irishman. He could not afford to buy it, but loved the sense in which the artist saw his subject – a donkey rearing up to kiss a big carthorse on the nose – as if seen through the eyes of a child. Forty-two years later, at a P.E.N. Club dinner to honour Yeats, the artist said he was overwhelmed. He felt he should have been running for President of Ireland.

Careful as he was, he went home and, looked up his huge press cuttings book and found Seamus O’Sullivan’s review. Sure enough, the United Irishman journalist had written about ‘the glee, the sheer childish glee’ of the work. Yeats still had the watercolour. He popped it into a package and sent it round to O’Sullivan with a note thanking him for the dinner, the speech, and his kind words. The drawing remained in the Starkey family until 1971 when it was lent to the Sligo Museum, later becoming part of the collection.

It is for these and many other visible reasons that the show in the National Gallery’s Yeats Museum should be visited. One has to brave a dark and claustrophobic series of three rooms, low-ceilinged and quite uncomfortable to be in. But the paintings glow and the selection from Sligo is particularly welcome, outshining much of the National Gallery’s own mixed bag of paintings by the artist.

More by accident than design, Yvonne Scott has brought out a book of essays on Jack Yeats [Four Courts Press, €55] that goes very well in the context of the National Gallery show. Dr Scott is the director, and was the founder, of the Irish Art Centre in Trinity College. Most of the essays derive from a seminar held to coincide with the exhibition, ‘Jack B Yeats: Amongst Friends’ which was organized by Theo Waddington in honour of his father, Victor Waddington, who was Jack’s dealer and who, more than any other person in the last century, was responsible for creating and enhancing the artist’s reputation over many years.

It is not often appreciated that, when Jack Yeats died, in 1957, he was little known outside Ireland and was regarded with mixed feelings, as to the quality and understanding of his art, at home. He was not held in derision – as he had been in the period between the two world wars, notably in the pages of Dublin Opinion – but his pictures were still not bought. When he died, most of the major works were still in his studio. The lighter side of Jack Yeats, evident in this mockery as in other comments on his life and work, was a notable feature of the witty speech given by Nicholas Robinson at the opening of the original ‘Amongst Friends’ exhibition and now reprinted as the first essay in the book.

Robinson’s contribution is supported by an interesting essay by Riann Coulter on the impact of Victor Waddington between the years 1943 to 1957, when he represented Jack Yeats. It was uphill all the way. After the artist’s death Waddington left for England. Before it, he wrote to Yeats and got his blessing as his representative and when the estate was sorted out he was able to purchase the Yeats collection and make it the foundation for his Bond Street exhibitions through which he established the painter’s reputation. It was the dedication of a lifetime.

Othere essays are by Yvonne Scott herself, a fruitful account of Yeats’s artistic roots and the development of his style against an intelligently argued backdrop of technical, critical and creative analysis. In this sense the book is refreshingly aggressive, a real attempt to addres problems that exist in Yeats’s art and in our changing judgment about him.

Collective endorsement of what he did, coupled with a view that he was something exceptionally wonderful, with no pictures falling outside this comprehensive adulation, is a view from the past. It no longer holds. Any analysis of him today, both within the focus on his own art exclusively and also in the context of Irish art more widely viewed, presents a different picture altogether. The book helps this.

Two essays – by Sighle Bhreathnac Lynch and Róisín Kennedy – pursue the old road of Jack Yeats’s supposed ‘nationalism’ and its connections with ‘Republicanism’; but, apart from the data that emerges, these writings leave us virtually unmoved as to whether he painted with the human spirit in the forefront of his mind, or in pursuit of an Irish national target. I prefer the human spirit.

There is one painting hanging in the Yeats Rooms that shows a tram with women grouped in the foreground chatting, and a man further down the car, brooding by himself. It is tempting for nationally minded viewers of such a work to think he is cogitating about Ireland’s woes and Britain’s responsibility for them. I would feel happier believing he is thinking of a nice plate of bacon and cabbage.