The Life and Work of Jack B. Yeats

Jack B. Yeats (29 August 1871 – 28 March 1957 )

Jack Butler Yeats, the fourth son or artist John Butler Yeats, bother of poet Wiliam Butler Yeats, was born 1871, London. Jack B spent most of his youth in County Sligo, living with his mothers parents William and Elizabeth Pollexfen. So influential was his early years in Sligo that Jack B said each painting he created had somewhere in it a thought of Sligo.

Yeats’ studied art in South Kensington, at the Government School of Design, then later he continued his education at the prestigious Westminster School of Art. His family had an affiliation with the sea, his grandfather William being a seaman, and they moved to the Devon coast. Yeats’ love of Ireland and Sligo brought him back to Ireland regularly.

In 1898, Yeats visited the grave of Theobold Wolf Tone, political leader of the United Irishmen, and there after his art subjects was exclusively of Ireland and the Irish people. In 1899, his body of work, Sketches of Life in the West of Ireland, was put on display in both Dublin and London.

Jack B started his career as an illustrator, working mostly in watercolour, with most of his artwork being print in books, magazines, posters, journals and theatrical productions.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not subscribe to a particular art movement, and his work changed dramatically over the years, becoming less illustrative and more bold, abstract and energetic, responding to his subjects in a unique and very personal way.

The theme of his work was mostly of the West; the land, sea, race meetings, ordinary people in ordinary settings. He managed to reflect the depth, character and individuality of the people he painted, conveying emotion and their humanity.

Besides painting, Yeats was a prolific writer, and in his lifetime he completed six novels, numerous poems and several plays. He retained his interest in theatre, and in 1905 he joined playwright John Millington Synge in travels around the coast of Galway and Mayo and contributed to work on the the book The Aran Islander. Synges’ photographs of the island inhabitants greatly influenced much of his latter work of paintings of fishermen and scenes of roof thatching.

Yeats moved back to Ireland in 1910, typically taking residence by the sea in Greystones, County Wicklow.

It was a time of change in Ireland, as the country struggled to find it’s on sense of national identity. Yeats sympathy was with the Irish, and his own Irish Nationalism grew in the days leading to the 1916 Rising. Some of the works he regarded as his best included a painting titled A Political Meeting, and he wrote Bachelors Walk, in Memory as a memorial to a group of Irish people who had been shot down by British troops. Another work of this time was of fallen Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa.

Later he located to Dublin city, and produced many works documenting the city and it’s people. His work from 1905 onward was, dramatic, strong, painting mostly in oils. The next two decades saw his work evolve into an impasto style with energetic brush marks and use of brighter colours. After 1940 he preferred to work with palette knife, rejecting the use of line, seeking to represent the emotion of an event rather than the form.

His work changed again after the passing of his wife in 1947, becoming more expressive, he used his fingers and palette knife, applying paint directly from the tube, passionately expressing emotion and optimism is bright colours. Yeats retained a keen interest in theatre throughout his entire life and was close friend of Synge and Samuel Beckett.

In 1957, Yeats died in Dublin, and was buried in Mounte Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross on the south side of the city. His work earned him the title of most important Irish artist of the 20th century, and many of his paintings are exhibited in The National Gallery, Dublin.