Bruce Arnold

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

Exploring the Inner LIfe of Yeats Family

There is a fine watercolour by John Butler Yeats painted in 1900 of his son Jack sitting opposite his wife, Cottie. They are either side of a blazing fire in a large and imposing fireplace. On the high mantelpiece is a carriage clock in its leather case and four green glass decanters. Cottie sits to one side, reading a book, a draft screen behind her. She is the picture of domestic contentment, a woman in possession of all that mattered to her, a home, a husband and a reasonably assured future.

He is looking both at her and beyond her. It is probably the finest likeness ever done of the young artist, the expression slightly stiff and posed – behind which lies a story – but at the same time aware of the satisfactory comfort of having established the way his life would go.

The work has not, as far as I know, been seen before. It belongs to the Yeats family and is part of an exhibition entitled Father and Son that Theo Waddington has put on in Cork Street, in London. It is made up of portraits and sketches by John Butler Yeats and drawings and paintings by Jack Yeats.

He was a strange-looking young man. His features somehow raw and uncertain. His lower jaw jutted out and his lower lip gave to his expression a slightly truculent air. He had a long head. This is emphasised even more in a double sketch of Jack done by his father in 1885. In the watercolour one is also conscious of the deep-set eyes and of the general stiffness in his appearance.

If the June dating of the work is accurate – which is possibly in doubt, since in June 1900 there was a heat wave and the large glowing fire in the grate suggests winter or autumn – then Jack’s feelings were mixed about his father sitting close to him doing this portrait. Jack’s mother had died in January of that year. The death was sudden but it followed a life of toil and hardship, including ill-health and two strokes that had left her an invalid. Jack almost certainly blamed this relatively early death on his father, a fact evident in the brass memorial plaque that used to be in St John’s Church, in Sligo, and was paid for by Jack who included his mother’s name with her four surviving children, but left out his father’s name. (The last time I was in the Church the plaque had been taken down and may have disappeared altogether.)

The location of the work is Devon, but not in Snail’s Castle, the home Jack and Cottie occupied there until they moved to Dublin. It is in John Masefield’s home, Avontura, which he lent to the young couple. He was a close friend in those early years.

I think the sad reality at this stage in the painter’s life, just a year short of thirty, with modest accomplishments as a painter, was that in his heart he had severed himself from the wilful and wayward father who had put Susan Yeats and the four children through such a difficult upbringing.

John Butler Yeats had burdened his eldest son, William, with family responsibilities that were heavy and unfair. He did the same with his two daughters, whose lives suffered as a result. Jack had spent little of his childhood in the family home, being sent off by his mother to enjoy the loving comforts in Sligo of his grandfather’s prosperous existence. His arrival in London at the age of sixteen brought a new spirit – in part of defiance – to the impoverished family home. Jack quickly enough assessed the situation as pretty irrecoverable, even after the move from poor lodgings in Earl’s Court – where he enjoyed the Buffalo Bill Cody show in the Earl’s Court stadium – to Bedford Park, where things did not really change much.

At an early stage Jack decided on marriage and announced the fact, having met an Isle of Man woman, Mary Cottenham White, who was a fellow student several years older than himself. It was an ideal charting of his future. He was able to declare that all his efforts as a sporting artist – a job he did well – would go towards setting up home. And so he detached himself and went on his way with Cottie. They had a long and happy domestic life; she had some money, there were no children and his work, as he wanted to pursue it, went well.

As Duncan said of Macbeth, ‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’. Yet Jack’s face, in this painting, seems to tell us a great deal, of his solitary nature, of his putting behind him the unhappy past: a certain cool detachment is there and it bodes well for the long creative life that lay ahead of him.

Whatever it was he had created for himself, domestically, it was not for his elder brother or his two sisters. Willie’s life, domestic and emotional, was storm-tossed. That of his two sisters was harsh to begin with and then became, with Cuala and the embroidery, fair unremitting toil and difficulty. Jack’s life, by contrast, was serene. The turmoil was in the paint and on the canvases.

The latter part of Jack’s career was presided over, professionally, by Victor Waddington. Theo, Victor’s youngest son, was the moving spirit for this London show, though Leslie Waddington was also involved. Theo persuaded the Yeats family to collaborate in the showing of a number of important rarities, all of them to be found on the website The show itself is at 5 Cork Street, the street in which Yeats’s dealer set up business when he moved from the South Anne Street gallery in which he first opened up shop.

A new dimension to the story is given by this show. It is interesting that Theo Waddington, in affine short essay of introduction, writes: ‘My grandfather brought his family to Ireland in 1922, because he felt that anywhere there was a political uprising there would also be a cultural revolution. With hindsight he was correct.’