From a talented family, Jack Butler Yeat’s brother, William Butler Yeats was a great Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. Jack Butler Yeats was the lesser known brother who became one of Ireland’s first Olympic Games medal winner. The 1924 Olympic Games had a competition in the Arts and Jack Yeats won Silver for his painting “The Liffey Swim.” This painting of the annual swim down the River Liffey through Dublin was the first Yeats painting acquired by the National Gallery of Ireland in 1931.
Source: House of Lochar
The Yeats’s Irish roots go back to Sligo as far as the 18th century, but there was always an English component in the family history. For example, although Ireland was the birth place of brother William the poet (Dublin) and sister Susan (Sligo), London was the birth place of Jack and two other children where their father John Yeats was studying art. Even though Yeats was born in London in 1871, it was while residing at the family home in Sligo that Yeats received his education from the years 1879 to 1887. In Jack Yeats’s heart and artistic soul, Sligo was his home:
“Sligo was my school and the sky above.”
When he returned to London to live with his family in 1887, Jack Yeats began his formal training as an artist. His father was well established as a prominent portrait painter at that time, and Jack would in time take of place of his father’s recognition and fame in the estimation of many art critics. Although not struggling artists, the Yeats family none-the-less was not wealthy. Jack’s contribution to the family was his income from illustrations. He was published in Punch, where he regularly appeared from 1910 to 1941, The Manchester Guardian, The Sketch, and did illustrations for books.
Book cover illustration. Source: Serif Books
Yeats’s time as an illustrator was shared with his literary skills which he used as editor and illustrator of several monthly magazines. The invention of photography soon put many illustrators out of work. Fortunately, Jack Yeats had already begun his career as a watercolour artist. For example, his watercolour Strand Races, West of Ireland which hung in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1895. In 1897 he opened his first solo exhibition under the name of Life in the West of Ireland in the Clifford Galleries in London. These paintings are a product of his years in residence in England, but the subjects came from his Sligo years.
Source: Mutual Art
When he got engaged to Mary Cottenham White (Cottie) in 1891, he worked day and night on illustrations for any kind of journal which would buy his work so that he could save to buy a home. It took him three busy years to buy the house, and then he got married in August 1894. Jack and Cottie did not have any children. He and his wife lived in England, with frequent trips to Ireland, as was the Anglo-Irish way, until his return to Ireland in 1910 when by this time he almost always painted using oils.
Around this time Yeats was well known enough as a painter internationally to be invited to the legendary Armory Show held in New York City in 1913. The art critic Alexander J. Finberg saw the Sligo/Irish influence in Yeats’ work:
“The people Mr. Yeats is interested in are a rough, hard-bitten, unshaven, and generally disreputable lot of men. His broken-down actors practicing fencing, his Circus Dwarf… are subjects no other artist would have chosen to paint.”
Whether Finberg meant his comment as criticism or praise, Jack Yeats would have agreed that the people and scenes he painted were genuine images from a place and time close to his heart.
Yeat’s wife Cottie died in 1947 and Yeats himself in 1957. Jack’s creative life in the last forty years of his life continued to include paintings but also literary works and the theatre. He designed sets for the Abbey Theatre and wrote novels and plays. He did not rival his brother William as a writer, but his father John was humble enough to acknowledge that Jack was a better artist than himself. It often happens with artists, that they are discovered late in their lives or after they die. For Jack Yeats the year 1942 was a signature year. His exhibit in the Tate Gallery in London helped the public to separate Jack Butler Yeats from John Butler Yeats and William Butler Yeats.
After his death, Jack Yeats’s esteem as an Irish artist had died down until, in a 1971 exhibition of his paintings at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, his reputation as an important painter was revived. He is sometimes referred to as the greatest and most influential painter of Irish life and character. These qualities have led to two of his paintings selling for over one million pounds: The Whistle of a Jacket (£1.4 in 2001) which we are honoured to use in the Masterpiece Scarf Collection and The Wild One (£1,233,500 in 1999).
‘The Whistle of a Jacket’ scarf by Art on Fashion