Bruce Arnold

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

The Yeats Clan Were Not One Big Happy Family

This new book paints a distorted picture of their life

Declan Foley's collection of essays on Jack Yeats, together with selected letters, is an agreeable omnibus volume with the declared purpose "of introducing Jack B Yeats to a new generation". The letters of the title, mainly from John Butler Yeats to Jack but including early letters which Jack wrote to Sarah Purser, are interspersed through the text. The rest of it consists of essays, very varied in content and quality.

By far the best of these is John Purser's Frisky Minds: Jack B Yeats, Bishop Berkeley and a Soupcon of Beckett. This is an examination of the Irish mind and attitude of these three men by means of an analysis of the Irish language and of their artistic output. Purser takes, for example, the Cartesian starting point -- cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) -- and gives us the Irish equivalent rendering as smaoíním mar is ann dom, which he translates as 'It's myself thinking that it's in me'.

Adding the failure of Gaelic Irish to come up with words for 'Yes' or 'No', the absence of the verb 'to have', and the use of phrases like 'You might not be wrong' where the English mind favours the appreciably more direct, 'you are right', he delivers a portrait of the painter, who is more of a writer to John Purser, that is truly stimulating.

His views on Berkeley and Beckett are also stimulating, as is the fact that all three were conscious of the creative values of each other. Purser draws from his views a sense of Beckett that is richly informed by observation of Beckett's vision through words. It is a brief and brilliant piece of writing.

Hilary Pyle devotes an essay to Jack Yeats's stencils. I came across these when researching my own book and was enchanted by them, at the same time finding them difficult to interpret. She does this very well, bringing to life the childlike enthusiasm he had for entertainment and the stylish way in which he did this through miniature theatre scripts, texts and characters, through the games with model boats played with John Masefield, through the stencils and in many other ways.

Something of this enthusiasm is also contained in the reprint of Arnold Harvey's article from the Irish Times. There is also an excellent but brief tribute by Leslie Waddington to his father, the dealer Victor Waddington. The truly woeful Eamonn Andrews' RTE interview is transcribed and makes dismal reading (much of the gaucheness is lost; better to hear it.)

After that, I am afraid, the book falls apart. Both the editor, Declan Foley, and the New York academic, Maureen Murphy, labour under the mistaken view that the Yeats family was a golden and happy one when this was far from being the case. Maureen Murphy bases her analysis on the evidence of an employee at the Cuala Press from 1907 to 1935, long after all of the children were reared and when the father, John Butler Yeats was finally in transit to the United States, never to return.

While this narrowly based view was a benign one it gives us none of the domestic trauma and unhappiness that derived from the dysfunctional father who simply failed to make provision for his family. He played a significant part in undermining the health of the mother, Susan. This led to her depression, partial blindness and early death. Jack could not easily forgive this.

Yeats Senior imposed huge strains on the three children he did try to bring up. Jack was brought up by his Sligo grandparents. He wisely saw that his father represented a threat and escaped this by early marriage. Jack conspicuously excluded his father from the memorial plaque to his mother in St John's Church, Sligo.

More regrettable still is the absence of any effective examination of Jack's paintings. It is eccentric to produce a book entitled The Only Art of Jack Yeats -- meaning the art of living, when in fact the Jack Yeats legacy and 'art' is in his work as a painter, and this is increasingly the case as other factors diminish. The book is coy, presenting through rose-tinted spectacles a view of the Yeats family -- marginal in any case to the main theme -- and then not dealing with Jack himself in the guise that mattered above all to him: that of the painter.

Serious address to his technical accomplishments and defects is still lamentably absent from any analysis of his work. Scholars and commentators are generally too timid. There is a juvenile consensus about holding the Yeats family together as some kind of happy, cohesive unit. It is not true, nor does it make sense.

What is badly needed, as far as Jack is concerned -- and we have to remember he alone is the stated subject of the book -- is an informed and detailed examination of the early, middle period and late paintings as well as his capacities as a cartoonist, water-colourist and line artist. An opportunity has been sadly missed here.

The Only Art of Jack B Yeats: Letters and Essays, Edited by Declan J Foley, Lilliput Press, €30, £24 Stg