W.B. Yeats is one of the most famous poets and statesmen that Ireland has produced, and his legacy casts a long shadow. While he was a Nobel Prize winner, an influential author in the Irish literary movement, and a member of the Irish senate, W.B. is not the only member of the family to contribute to Irish cultural life. In fact, the entire Yeats clan was a difficult group to keep up with, producing a master poet, a master painter, and influential drivers of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the lesser-known Yeats family members, and bring them forward to give them the recognition they so richly deserve.
JOHN BUTLER YEATS: THE PATRIARCH
John Butler Yeats was father to six children—William Butler (W.B.), Lily, Elizabeth, Robert, Jack, and Jane. He was a lawyer by trade who took up painting and studied at the Heatherley School of Fine Art. After a while, he abandoned the law entirely to make his way as an artist, which made life difficult for his wife and children, as their family income changed drastically. While his sketches and paintings can be found in private homes, there are few records of his sales and no definitive catalogue of his work. He is best known for his portraits, and several of his works are held by the National Gallery of Ireland (including portraits of his wife and daughters Elizabeth and Lily).
JACK BUTLER YEATS: MASTER PAINTER
Jack Butler Yeats was the baby of the family, but he was able to easily keep up with the formidable skill and reputations of his brother and sisters. Like his siblings, he spent most of his childhood with his grandparents in Sligo, a formative experience which would later greatly influence his artistic endeavors.
Jack went to art school in London at age 18, and began to draw professionally. Most of his early work featured illustrating magazines or newspapers in black and white, producing cartoons and comic strips for such publications as Punch and the Manchester Guardian. Soon, Jack and his wife Mary (affectionately known as “Cottie”) were able to buy a home in the country, where Jack set up a miniature theatre wrote plays for the local children. Most of his work was adventure stories, conjuring up exciting tales of pirates and life at sea–a throwback to the Sligo quays from Jack’s childhood. In the late 1890s, he began to experiment with watercolors, holding his first exhibition of watercolor paintings at the Clifford Gallery in London in 1897.
It wasn’t until Jack’s career threw him a fateful assignment about Irish life that he finally returned home to Ireland. In 1905, Jack collaborated with J.M. Synge on a newspaper assignment about life in west Ireland–an assignment that eventually ended up calling Jack back home for good. Around this time, Jack’s artwork makes a noticeable shift–from pen and ink illustrations to paintings in watercolor and oils. Not only that, but the subject matter takes on a decidedly Irish flavor. By 1920, Jack and Cottie had settled in the Dublin area, and Jack’s artwork provided illustrations for Irish authors instead of the English press.
Jack’s style of painting also varied throughout his career. Where he was first an illustrator for magazines, once he turned to oil paints, Jack began using more vibrant colors, larger canvases, and his brushstrokes became free, loose, and particularly striking. His paintings eventually took on an Expressionist style, leaning heavily on an emotional representation of Irish life.
His work runs the gamut, representing both urban and rural scenes, landscapes, and even depictions inspired by Celtic mythology. While Jack was sympathetic to the Irish Republican cause, he was never really politically active, preferring to pour his views of his homeland into his painting. His artwork is deemed to have greatly contributed to the surge of nationalism that took center stage in Irish art after the Irish War of Independence.
Jack’s art was often dismissed by critics after his death, but his reputation experienced a revival after an exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin in the 1970s. He is now considered to be one of the most, if not the most, important Irish painters of the 20th century. His work still remains influential, with his painting A Fair Day, Mayo, selling for €1 million at a 2011 auction in Dublin—giving Yeats the distinction of being the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art in Ireland.
THE YEATS SISTERS: ELIZABETH AND SUSAN
While their brothers W.B. and Jack were out making their marks in the literary and artistic worlds, Elizabeth and Lily Yeats were running their own businesses and working in the Celtic Revival and Arts & Crafts Movements. While they each had their own talents, they were highly influential in bringing their own style of artistic endeavors (and in teaching others to create) to Ireland.
The Arts & Crafts Movement
The Arts & Crafts Movement was marked by an increase in the popularity both in making and purchasing handmade items, with a resurgence in appreciation of cottage industries. These home businesses flourished in making items like stained glass, ceramics, tapestries, embroidery, and woodworking. The movement provided a distinct visual counterpart to the more famous literary Celtic revival (of which W.B. Yeats was a prominent member).
Both Elizabeth and Lily Yeats attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, but left when they were dissatisfied with the quality of the instruction. After a period in which they worked independently (Lily worked as a seamstress at Morris & Co. in London and served a short stint as a governess, and Elizabeth taught art while she learned more about printing), the sisters soon joined forces and became a powerhouse for Irish Arts and Crafts.
Dun Emer Guild
In 1903, the Yeats sisters went into business with Evelyn Gleeson, a wealthy Dubliner, and together they created the Dun Emer Guild. Dun Emer was named for Lady Emer, the wife of folk hero Cuchulainn, who was famed for her beauty and artistic talents. The purpose for Dun Emer was to provide work for Irish people and make beautiful things. Not only did the sisters great beautiful works of art, but they also aimed to teach young people, to pass on their skills to new generations. Young women were recruited to learn skills like painting, drawing, cooking, and sewing in addition to the Irish language and the Guild’s core crafts. The Guild exhibited their work regularly at a number of fairs and exhibitions, including the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.
While Dun Emer was an artistic success, it was not necessarily a financial success. After a few years, disagreements with Evelyn Gleeson led the Yeats sisters to split off on their own. They named their new endeavor Cuala Industries, and kept working in promoting Irish Arts and Crafts.
Lily specialized in embroidery. Her work involved items like cushion covers, curtains, sofa backs, and bed hangings. She also created embroidered pictures as well as altar cloths for churches, and some of her most famous work can be seen at St. Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea, County Galway. Her work was shown at many fairs and exhibitions across Europe and America, and she was consistently praised for her artistry and handiwork.
Elizabeth was head of the presses at Cuala Industries, and had a talent for printing. Along with books, the printing section of the company also created greeting cards, hand-colored prints, pamphlets, and broadsides (which were small monthly magazines). Elizabeth drew her own cards and prints for printing and distribution, and the printing press became a bit of a family affair. The very first book that Cuala Press completed was a collection of poems by Elizabeth’s brother W.B.–In the Seven Woods. W.B. helped his sister by working as an editor and allowing his poems to be used for greeting cards and prints. Jack also created illustrations for Elizabeth’s printings.
Part of what made Cuala Press unique was its focus on publishing brand-new works instead of established classics. The press was devoted to publishing Irish works by Irish authors for Irish readers, often publishing writers associated with the Irish Literary Revival. Elizabeth printed several editions of her brother W.B.’s works, as well as those of other writers like Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge (the same J.M. Synge that Jack collaborated with to bring Irish life to the page). Not only that, but Cuala Press, owned and operated by the Yeats sisters, was the only Arts and Crafts press that was run and staffed by women. Other independent printers at the time were run by men, so this set Cuala Press apart at a time when working outside the home was a rare thing for women.
THE YEATS LEGACY
W.B. Yeats is the most renowned member of the Yeats family. He was one of the founders of the Irish Theatre (which later became the Abbey Theatre), and wrote several plays and volumes of poetry. W.B. was also a Nobel Prize winner and a member of the Irish Senate. However, Jack, Elizabeth, and Lily were just as talented and just as dedicated to their crafts as their more famous brother. While their legacies may have lingered in the length of their brother’s large shadow, they are worth revisiting in their own rights as artists, innovators, and giants of Irish history and heritage.