Paint Run Amuck

Frank Kermode

  • Jack Yeats by Bruce Arnold
    Yale, 418 pp, £29.95, September 1998, ISBN 0 300 07549 9

We attach the epithet ‘great’ rather loosely to artists, but there is probably some tacit agreement about which ones deserve it. It doesn’t seem wrong to call W.B. Yeats a great poet, and in certain contexts he may be called a great Irish poet, though most of the time it might seem odd to insist that Dante was a great Italian, or Shakespeare a great English, poet, partly because we vaguely think of them as transcending nationality. But Yeats was the necessary great poet of the national cultural renaissance that accompanied a struggle for political independence with which he was inevitably and willingly associated: he would have been a great Irish poet even if he had not become supranational, more universal than that description suggests.

The new nation also needed a great Irish painter, and Jack Yeats, brother of the more famous W.B., was seen to supply the need. The question whether he was just a great Irish painter or a great painter haunts this book. If you think of him as a gifted artist with an inextinguishable interest in depicting the posture and movement of horses, donkeys, droll Irish characters and Sligo scenes – everybody has seen those pictures of horse-races on the sands of Rosses Point, reproductions are widely available – you may be content to leave him to the nationalists, who in any case wouldn’t accept that a great Irish painter isn’t a great painter tout court. But it is the virtue of this book that you cannot honestly avoid the issue. It raises with urgency the question whether Jack Yeats does not deserve, like his brother, to be hailed, even by the non-Irish, as great in the more absolute sense.

That Bruce Arnold has a profound admiration for his subject is evident from the minute care of his research, but he avoids idolatry, and this measure of reserve lends credibility to his estimate of the painter’s stature. His text may be too long, too conscientious in recording details of exhibitions, banquets and committee meetings, but these rather tedious passages testify to a determination to be a biographer on whom nothing is lost. Yeats was a private man, seemingly incapable of the usual excesses and vanities, and to know a lot about him is to admire a life of prodigiously hard work made tolerable by innocent diversions like making model boats and then helping Masefìeld to sink them, and collecting vast quantities of ephemera. He also enjoyed violent and exotic action but always as an observer rather than as a participant.

The publisher has done the author proud, for this is a great slab of a book, on heavy paper, with over two hundred black and white illustrations, mostly disposed in wide margins, and there are 17 colour plates. The book is carefully designed, though less carefully copy-edited and proof-read; perhaps having it set in Hong Kong and printed in Singapore created problems.

Still, the volume has an appropriately monumental air, and the author will surely be forgiven for ignoring the painter’s frequently reasserted ban on reproductions of any kind. The instruction in his will is clear enough: he required that ‘no photographs or reproductions of any kind be made of any of my paintings or drawings, and that [of] photographs or other reproductions of any of my paintings or drawings already made there shall be no publication and no further copies shall be made’. During his life he reluctantly permitted very small, imperfect reproductions in catalogues, but believed they put a screen between the work and the viewer: ‘the better they are the worse they are.’ A painting was an event and these images turned an event into a reference and deflected attention from the works.

Observance of this austere interdict would of course make books of this kind impossible. Once the decision to ignore it has been taken the possibilities are without obvious limit, for in the course of a long life (1871-1957) Yeats produced 1100 oils and thousands of drawings, many of the latter intended for reproduction in the first place, though admittedly in ephemeral or trivial circumstances. He must have known that his wishes would be politely ignored, even that they were incompatible with his estimate of his own merit; but although he was generally a quiet, amiable man he rarely preferred the opinions of others to his own, which he expressed with great clarity.

This independence of mind was an enduring characteristic, evidenced, for example, in his polite, rather distant responses to the views of his remarkable but notoriously unsatisfactory father, the painter J.B. Yeats, whose irresponsibilities and financial dependence on his children did not prevent him from harrying them with advice. The elder brother, W.B., was far more easily disturbed than Jack by Father’s conduct. J.B. couldn’t understand why his gifted artist son seemed to have learnt nothing in the London art schools; why he simply followed his nose and never even bothered to learn the rules about painting in oils and other useful technical tips. The charge that he didn’t understand oils was repeated in his later years, when he painted a great many of them, but he didn’t care; and his refusal to be associated with any school or movement was lifelong, though Arnold is willing to link some late works with the Surrealists. He admired artists who, like himself, went their own way without regard to such matters – Oskar Kokoschka, who greatly admired him, Joyce, who owned one of his pictures, and Beckett, who was to be his champion in old age.

Despite this Bartlebian attitude, Yeats couldn’t avoid being buffeted by rival claims and clamours. Born into a remarkable family, with a famous elder brother and two talented sisters, his early life was divided between West London and Sligo. He had to join in the family scramble for money, but unlike the rest of the tribe he found making it easy enough. Still in his teens, he found plenty of work in the newspapers, for these were the days before they began to use photographs and instead employed artists to illustrate horse-races, prizefights, circuses and entertainments like those provided by Buffalo Bill Cody. Long after he gave up those early assignments he went on, pseudonymously, doing cartoons for Punch, though he kept as quiet as he could about them. Once a Punch cheque was sent in error to W.B., and Jack was cross to think his brother knew about this apparently rather good source of income. His skill in these activities was much admired, although Arnold, in his judicious way, ranks Yeats below such masters of the craft as Ralph Caldecott and Phil May.

In the early years there can have seemed little reason why Yeats should not have made a successful career in this kind of journey work, and he energetically produced drawings for visiting-cards, bookplates and doilies, as well as producing all those bluff depictions of horses and clowns. But he was clearly determined to give himself time to decide what to do next; he was remarkably self-reliant.

He married young and distanced himself a little from his exigent family, living for a while in Chertsey and then moving to Devon, with frequent visits to the West of Ireland. Years later he moved his household to Ireland. One fate he shared with his brother the poet – he was always balanced on the hyphen in ‘Anglo-Irish’. He disliked the term, remarking that it ‘means, to my ear, one brother planting tea in Ceylon, Ethel married to a rubber planter in Siam, and Doreen married to a decent chap who has tried sheep farming in New Zealand. Or perhaps it means, the Big House or the Little Big House at the back of my mind.’ He wondered if the term could properly be applied to a family like his, for whom connection with the Big House was a remote fact of history; they belonged to the Protestant merchant class, and neither the Yeatses nor the Pollexfens, who were fairly rich, had genuine aristocratic pretensions. In the midst of Catholic Sligo they were bourgeois and Protestant, but also Irish and proud of it.

Yet Yeats declined to think of himself as an Irish painter. Lady Gregory wanted him for her renaissance (to a considerable extent an Anglo-Irish affair). His not altogether helpful champion, Thomas MacGreevy, loudly claimed him for Ireland, but Samuel Beckett, deploring this as he deplored attempts to exaggerate his own Irishness, claimed Yeats as an international master. That, as it happens, was Yeats’s own view. In all modesty he declared himself ‘the first living painter in the world’, adding that the next best was ‘so far away that I am only able to make him out’.

This estimate would not have been endorsed by brother William. Relations between them were generally cool, and Jack was never pleased to be mistaken for the great poet or thought of as his talented brother. They were temperamentally quite different, the painter a one-man school, with no cronies, no pupils, no public panache. Yet there are, inevitably, resemblances. Over long years the poet worked his way, with great effort and discipline, towards what we recognise as his modern style, reaching full power in the volumes of the Twenties, when he was already a Nobel Prize-winner. The painter became modern at much the same time, but in a rather sudden, revolutionary move. He had, surprisingly perhaps, figured in the great American Armory show of 1913, probably at the instance of John Quinn, the New York lawyer to whose patronage the Yeats family, as well as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, owed so much. Yeats mistrusted ‘the New’, although he knew well enough what was going on; and after what seems to have been a quite serious nervous breakdown in 1915, which held him up for some years, he suddenly began to be serious about oil painting. Making the switch from line to tone in the teeth of those who said he was ignorant about this kind of work, he painted vast numbers of canvases, 500 of them between the ages of 70 and 85. It seems entirely characteristic that, following his own bent, he took a virtual holiday to write seven novels and nine plays, none of which struck his brother as worth staging. It was in his last years that his painting became more wildly ‘modern’.

It was not universally well received, and was sometimes described as ‘paint run amuck’, or paint ‘dragged about’. It belongs to no school (Yeats remarked that Picasso might have been a better painter if he had skipped Paris altogether) and Arnold speaks of ‘the problem of emptiness or diffusion of effort’ in the larger canvases, of ‘technical limitation’, and, quite simply, of ‘bad painting’, with excessive impasto, a wild palette and ‘relative ignorance in the use of oil paints’. It was the mere act of painting, the determination to follow his own nose and ignore criticism, that propelled this self-made artist into the extraordinary feats of his last quarter-century. The break was quite sudden; gone were the days when Masefìeld was his close friend or, having toured the West of Ireland with John Synge, he illustrated in his sketches that author’s reports for the Manchester Guardian.

Some of the results of his conversion are to be seen in the colour plates of this book, though of course they do not convey the depth of his impasto. And since so many of these paintings are in private collections, Arnold, in publishing these reproductions, has done him the service he would have declined on principle.

It might be that the slower self-modernising of his brother had some part in the painter’s change of direction. And, again like William, Jack could not quite avoid the political implications of Irishness in the years after the Easter Rising. He stood apart as much as possible, always amiable and pacific, but taking De Valera’s side after the Civil War, when his brother went with Cosgrave and became a Free State senator. Meanwhile he remained confident in his own idea of himself, and although he was, almost inevitably, a guest of Lady Gregory’s at Coole, he continued to choose his own friends. His most ardent admirers among painters were Kokoschka and Sickert, and among artists more generally Samuel Beckett, at first a shy visitor, and later a close friend. It is quite reasonably claimed that Yeats, who loved solitary figures and clown-like pairs, influenced Beckett’s work, and that Gogo and Didi are Yeatsian characters ‘immersed’ by Beckett in the ‘mystique de la merde’.

Despite the apparent violence of his switch to oils Yeats never quite lost contact with his old themes or with his Irishness. His brother found himself, in his last years, once more haunted by Cuchulain, but now as a feature of universal rather than national myth. There may be nothing in Jack’s work to compare with the dark splendour of ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, or the violent rant of the Old Man in The Death of Cuchulain (‘I spit upon the dancers of Degas’ etc) but there is still great energy and some enumeration of old themes. Above all there is that serene assurance: there was only one way for him, and that was the way he had chosen.

Yeats was always a competent manager and, without achieving spectacular prices, his work sold well enough to keep him in comfort in his old age. In his last years he spent part of his time, whenever he felt like it, in a nursing home. He remained faithful to his Church, and regularly went to services in St Patrick’s because he enjoyed the singing. After the death of W.B. he became friendly with his niece and nephew, whom previously he had hardly known.

In an epilogue Arnold tells of the prices now being paid for the paintings. The ‘seriously wealthy Irish business tycoon ... with more money than understanding’ has moved into the market, and the Million Pound Yeats may not be far in the future. The tycoons disregard Arnold’s point that some of what they buy is ‘overblown and boring ... without much sense of structure and form’, presenting, by the ‘exuberance’ of the painter’s thick impasto, ‘problems for posterity which are far from resolved’. While he is busy deploring these facts, Arnold goes on to complain that the Irish National Gallery has favoured Yeats at the expense of other artists – a tribute to the success of the campaign to establish him as the painter of the national renaissance. Another consequence of this apotheosis is the abundance of ‘general bric-à-brac’, the books, record covers, calendars and so on, bearing Yeatsian images and offering a vulgarly diminished idea of the artist himself.

One good motive for the writing of this book may have been to correct these distortions. It avoids falling into a different fault, that of making its counter-claims too unreservedly. Like his subject, the author cannot altogether escape the pressure of nationalism: whether or not he is a great painter, Yeats is a great Irish painter. Arnold has a deep respect for a remarkable career, and would presumably endorse the higher estimate, but still wants to make some quite severe qualifications. His is a judicious book and entirely worthy of its subject.