Bruce Arnold

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

The Yeats family – together again for one last time...

You should arise and go see the ultimate exhibition on the life and work of WB, Jack and co, says Bruce Arnold

'The one golden recipe for Art is the ferment of an unhappy childhood working through a noble imagination."

Cyril Connolly's memorable quote could have been written with the Yeats family in mind.

Part of the their story– the whole of it will never be told – is to be found in a uniquely comprehensive collection of the written works of the Yeats dynasty, father and four siblings, that goes on exhibition this month at Maggs Bookshop in London's Berkeley Square.

The monumental towering figure of John Butler Yeats, father of four surviving children who made their great mark on Irish literature and art, presided over dysfunction as though it were the gift that might enable artistic talent. He did this while, at the same time, laying waste to those around him and largely failing himself as an artist.

He did so with a torrent of elegant words and foolish attitudes that endeared him to many, though not to his wife and children. Their natural love was clouded by their recognition of his failure and of the burden this placed on each of them, most of all on William Butler Yeats, the eldest, and on their mother, Susan Pollexfen, who bore a lifelong burden that shamed her and depressed her, undoubtedly contributing to her early death.

The two daughters suffered also from their father's failure to care for the family he had created. Lily, in particular, had to go out to work, learning embroidery under William Morris and his daughter May, where she came close to a breakdown as a result of the harsh conditions and poor pay.

Her sister Lolly, running the Cuala Press, had further problems with her brother. Though William Butler Yeats often found funds to keep the press going, he also used it as his private publishing house, taking royalties on his own works and often running into conflict with Lolly.

Their work is liberally part of the collection and includes fine examples of Cuala embroidery and bookbindings.

The collection has two examples, one painted by Lolly with Celtic motifs, and the other in plain but luxurious vellum.

The one member of the family who evaded strife and conflict was Jack Yeats. Brought up in Sligo by his grandfather, William Pollexfen, who adored him, Jack only joined his siblings at the age of 16.

When he became part of this unhappy family he had learnt enough to shun the burden of dysfunction and within a few years escaped through marriage into a world and a life of his own.

John Butler Yeats's dysfunction was real enough. He could not put bread on the table nor protect his children from the harsh winds of poverty.

He spent his time talking with friends about the greatness of the art he might one day achieve while at the same time sending Willie and his daughters out to work and earn money for groceries.

The collection was formed over three generations by the Gatch family in America.

It consists of over 1,000 items, including almost everything published by WB Yeats, all the books printed for sale at the Cuala Press, together with original letters and artwork. It is topped off with a slate from WB Yeats's famous Thoor Ballylee, the Tower of verse and legend.

The nucleus of the collection was left to Milton Gatch, universally known as 'Mac', who is now selling the complete collection as a single library, certainly the greatest of its kind in private hands of this uniquely gifted Irish family.

The collection came into his possession from his aunt, Katherine Haynes Gatch, a professor of English at Hunter College, in the United States who died in 1986, and who in turn had inherited the collection from her colleague, the Yeats scholar Marion W Witt, who died in 1978.

As a collector, Mac concentrated on the printed works, moving on to the artist-father John Butler Yeats and all his offspring.

This justified the assembling of a complete run of Lolly's Cuala Press publications as well as all but four of the poet's published works, an astonishing collecting achievement.

In the year 2000, he organised an exhibition of works by the five Yeatses from the seminal period 1890-1910 at the Grolier Club in New York: "The Yeats Family and the Book Circa 1900."

One can also draw from the collection some first-hand account of the serious and eventually irreversible antipathy between George Moore and WB Yeats. Opinions differ as to which of these artists come off better in the spats they engaged in. Moore had a finer judgment of Yeats's shortcomings while Yeats was too egocentric to take sufficient notice of the other writer's qualities.

Yeats did, however, intend to exclude Lady Augusta Gregory from Cathleen Ni Hoolihan, the first edition of which was published in 1902 by the Caradoc Press in London. Though co-written with Lady Gregory, she was not credited.

Maud Gonne was the first Cathleen, in a production that was a great success, all performances packed to standing-room, though more for nationalist than artistic concerns.

Late in life, Yeats wondered whether "that play of mine sent out certain people that the English shot".

There are splendid items throughout the collection, some of infinite rarity, others of fascinating revelation. They will not be seen side by side ever again in such full and pregnant rarity and appeal.