Monday, March 25, 2013

The Sketchbooks of Jack B. Yeats at the National Gallery

Sketch of Synge Reclining
An edited version (no shameless product placement) of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 24 March 2013.

The Sketchbooks of Jack B. Yeats, 1897-1955

Jack B. Yeats is an elusive figure.  He famously refused to discuss the meaning of his work or even his method of working.  An unintentionally hilarious interview with Eamon Andrews in 1947 features the broadcaster trying in vain to extract some illuminating sound bites from the recalcitrant artist.  Yeats' responses included "I am not at all fond of talking about my own work." and "I'm against the giving of personal details - we'll pass on that one".  His reticence about these matters resembled that of his close friend Samuel Beckett.  We know little of his influences although critics will nod towards Degas and there's certainly a connection with Oskar Kokoschaka.  Apart from being good friends with the Austrian, the later mature work of both artists valued expressive colour over draughtsmanship.  Yeats never took students or allowed anyone to see him paint.  His opinion of art theory was summed up in his famous dismissal of Cubism: "who the blazes is Gleizes".  At the time Irish artists Evie Hone and Mainie Jellet had come under the influence of the Belgian Albert Gleizes, one of the movement's key theorists.  Yeats was having none of it.  Observation and hard graft made an artist, not theory and airy verbiage.  After his death his library of over 2,000 books was found to contain only a couple that related to art.  That this reticence extended to his private life is borne out by how little is known generally of his wife Mary Cottenham Yeats (Cottie).  The contrast with the well-aired amours of his older brother is striking.

So this absorbing and well-presented show offers us a window into the little-known private world of our greatest artist.  We see in these visual diaries the political concerns, the leisure interests, the social life and the visual stimuli of this most secretive of men.  It also, by the way, provides us with a rich slice of social history from the early part of the 20th century.  Yeats' niece, Anne Yeats, presented the National Gallery of Ireland with Jack B. Yeats' personal archive in 1996.  This donation led to the creation of the Yeats archive by the NGI which has since been augmented from other sources.  The original gift consisted of a "significant" number of original artworks, 204 sketchbooks (one of which was Cottie's) and various ancillary items such as race cards, boxing posters and circus posters.  The show consists of 123 of these sketchbooks opened, we are told, on "particular and well-chosen pages".   In addition four complete sketchbooks have been photographed and the digital images can be viewed on an array of Samsung Galaxy tablets.  These tablets also display many family photographs and letters from the Yeats archive.   We can see that Yeats was a dog-lover from his dog Hooligan's regular appearances.  Artists' sketchbooks play an important role in the history of art, going back to Leonardo da Vinci.  Yeats favoured a ring-bound pocket sized book "containing 36 leaves of fine cartridge paper".  The supplier was George Rowney and Co. from London who is still in existence and who had also supplied the sketchbooks used by Turner back in the early 19th Century.  A nice NGI connection.

Some of the subject matter we are familiar with: the theatre, the boxers, the circuses, the horses, and evidence of the inevitable sojourn at Coole Park.  Other sketches bring us another side of the man, a political side.  There's a sketch of a man and boy hauling food to strikers during the lockout.  Yeats felt intensely the injustice of this event.   There's a large 2-page pencil drawing of Sackville Street and the quays after the 1916 bombardment.  There's also a depiction of a corn workers protest march in London.  Yeats was a life-long republican so we are not surprised to see a sketch of Padraig Pearse, head thrown back in full oratorial flow.   There are amusing juxtapositions everywhere.  The boxing and racing fan apparently also enjoyed the cricket and croquet at Coole Park.  The republican embracing ascendancy activities. There's even a self-portrait thrown in: a study of Yeats sitting in a barbers's shop (see image) bedecked with sporting prints.  Yeats travelled in the West of Ireland with Synge, and illustrated the resulting Aran Islands.  You fancy that the beautifully composed sketch of the great man in repose on a tree came from one of these jaunts, maybe during a stop off at Coole Park.  Yeats and Cottie had a warm and enduring marriage.  Amidst the multifarious couplings in his bohemian milieu he was never known to stray.  He was devastated by her death in 1947, saying at the time  "we were like two odd children who came to a party and stayed on".  We see this love demonstrated in a couple of affectionate sketches of her on the croquet lawn and resting on a hill overlooking Donegal Bay.  A lot of the later sketches are graphite only, while the earlier ones are usually a combination of water colour and graphite.

There 's an eye-catching piece called A Horserace from 1903 where Jack B. is clearly poking fun at his older brother.  He has used a quote from W. B.'s poem In the Seven Woods to accompany the sketch of a furious finish to a horse race:  "while that Great Archer, Who but awaits His hour to shoot, still hangs".  The Archer Jack has in mind is surely the great Fred Archer, jockey supreme.  While William would have been referring to a loftier being.

There's a minor mystery at the heart of this show.  Although it's advertised as showing the sketchbooks of Jack B. Yeats from 1897 to 1955 (when Yeats entered a nursing home), it's clear that the vast majority of the books cover a period before 1924.  In fact 171 of the 204 books cover the period 1896 to 1919.  After 1924 they peter out apart from a couple of sketches from the mid-1940s and a final poignant drawing of his old studio in Devon from 1955.  Did Yeats stop sketching abruptly in the mid-1920s?  Hardly.  Why would he abandon suddenly such an ingrained practice.  The art historian Ciaran MacGonigal accompanied his father Muiris on regular visits to Yeats in the Portobello Nursing Home in the mid-Fifties.  He recalls Yeats sitting in his ground-floor room overlooking the canal surrounded by his sketchbooks and pencils, drawing to the very end. The activity was as natural to him as breathing.  The NGI Yeats archivist Pauline Swords maintains that there was a definite slowing down in sketching activity in the 1930s.  In that decade he concentrated on his writings and did comparatively little painting.  Maybe he felt he'd enough images in the bank.  She believes that there is a total of about 240 sketchbooks in existence and most of the ones missing from the archive can be traced.  Yeats made Ernie O'Malley a gift of eleven of them and he occasionally sold others.  Nursing homes probably didn't come cheap in the Fifties either.

What is certain is that Yeats continued to mine these sketchbooks for material for his paintings right through his career.  One of the joys of the show is searching for connections between the sketches and subsequent paintings.  There are obvious ones like the 1899 sketch The Giant Spelling which is clearly the source for the 1945 painting The Giant Reading - the composition is almost identical.  Also, the sketches of Derrynane Bay anticipate the 1927 painting Derrynane.  The sketchbooks served to stir memory and emotion.  The poignancy of his 1928 painting The Singing Clown is reflected in Circus Clown, the sketch from 1913.   The two old characters in Old man reading to a friend among the timber on quay could be the same two that occupied a park bench in Stephen's Green in May Night in Dublin.

Leaving this fascinating and truly illuminating exhibition it struck me that all we were seeing was the very top of the tip of the iceberg.  There are about 150 images on display from the 123 sketchbooks in the show (not counting the electronic stuff).  The NGI has over 200 of these sketchbooks.  Each book (assuming they were all the George Rowney ones) contains 36 leaves, or 72 pages.  That's a potential capacity of over 14,000 sketches.  However, the catalogue essay on the archive states that there are around "nine thousand pages of figurative sketches".  So less than 2% of the available images are on display.  Every year the NGI wheels out its Turner watercolours and all very fine they are - if only a distant echo of that great master's work.  With the Yeats bequest it has an ideal opportunity to make this an annual event also, turning over the pages and giving us a new selection every year.  The display cases are there.  Most software companies would be delighted to fulfil the electronic side.  If Guinness can launch Arthur's day for their excellent product I can see no reason why the NGI can't celebrate another national treasure by giving us an annual Jack B. Yeats event.