The Playboy of West 29th Street

Colm Tóibín on John Butler Yeats

It was June 2004 and I was in the Special Collections section of the Union College Library in Schenectady in upstate New York. About an hour earlier, I had heard one of the librarians telling someone on the phone in a half-whisper that someone called Colm Tóibín was in the library looking at the correspondence of John Butler Yeats, which had been transcribed, then typed, then donated to the library by William M. Murphy, John Butler Yeats’s biographer.

And now I looked up from the Yeats letters to find a man looking at me. It struck me immediately who he was. He was William M. Murphy himself, the author of Prodigal Father, the biography, and Family Secrets, a book about the Yeats family. He was the man who had transcribed the very letters I was reading. Murphy’s gaze was guarded. If he came over and found that I was in Schenectady for a few days, with evenings free, he might feel he would have to invite me to his home for supper or a drink. He was trying to ascertain, just by looking, if I was someone who would frighten his dogs, or undo his lawn, or spread false and malicious rumours about him and his family when I got back to Ireland. In order to put him out of his misery, I stood up and walked towards him and thanked him for the great work he had done on the Yeats family and for depositing his papers in the library. And then, as his gaze softened into a look of kindness and ease, he invited me to dinner the following night.

At the table with him and his wife, I discovered that they both had the same charm and good humour as Prodigal Father did. Among the many suggestions he made that evening was that, when I was in Dublin again, I should go and see Michael Yeats, the son of the poet, who might be glad to meet someone who was interested in his grandfather as much as his father – and to spend time with someone who was brought up, as I was, in a Fianna Fáil family (Fianna Fáil being at the time the main political party in Ireland, but also a political movement that was unfashionable, to say the least, and an organisation which very few Yeats scholars knew anything about). So, a few months later, I found myself having lunch with Michael Yeats and his wife, Gráinne, at Cliff House, their home in Dalkey in the suburbs of Dublin. Gráinne, who kept giving me a beady look across the table, was used to people coming to the house looking for something. All I wanted to see, though, were some sketches towards a self-portrait that John Butler Yeats had made in New York towards the end of his life.

John Butler Yeats, self-portrait
John Butler Yeats, self-portrait

After lunch, Michael Yeats motioned me to follow him into the hallway. He opened a long drawer in an old chest and began to rummage until he found, wrapped in tissue paper, some unframed drawings by his grandfather, self-portraits done in old age. As soon as he removed the tissue paper and put the drawings on a table, the face of his grandfather looked out at us, urgent and full of inner energy. The gaze was vivid, piercing, questioning, the gaze of a spirit alert to its own power. For as long as I thought polite, I looked at these drawings, remembering Lady Gregory’s remark that, since John Butler Yeats had so much difficulty finishing paintings, he should be encouraged to do as many drawings as possible, drawings that could be done in one sitting.

As I turned, my eye was caught by an oil painting hanging on the stairwell. For a second, I thought it had to be a reproduction, since as far as I knew the original, which had been owned by the New York collector John Quinn, was in the United States. But the closer I looked, the surer I was that this was the actual self-portrait Yeats had worked on for the last decade of his life. It was commissioned by Quinn in New York in 1911 and worked on between then and the artist’s death in 1922. ‘It is like watching a blessed ghost of a long lost beloved slowly materialising,’ Yeats wrote to Quinn in 1919. ‘I think of nothing else and I dream of it.’ It was painted in Yeats’s little bedroom, also his studio, at the Petitpas boarding house on West 29th Street. In her autobiography, the critic Mary Colum, a friend of the Yeatses and the Joyces, described the iron bed and cheap worn rug, and the easel on which was ‘always erected a portrait at which he tinkered day after day’. John Butler Yeats’s preoccupation with this late self-portrait accounts for its heavily worked surface, as he kept scraping off and reworking what he had done. He spent more than a decade on a single image so that he could all the more capture a sense of spontaneity.

In his preface to Early Memories, John Butler Yeats’s son W.B. Yeats wrote that in his letters his father ‘constantly spoke about this picture as his masterpiece, insisted again and again … that he had found what he had been seeking all his life’. In a letter to a friend in January 1917 John Butler Yeats wrote: ‘Now I mean as soon as possible to finish my portrait, on which I have been working for many years … I want it to be “great” – an immortal work – that’s why I put off finishing it.’ The painting became one of his excuses in old age for not returning to Ireland: he insisted that the self-portrait in progress ‘must not be endangered by a change of light’. Now, in the scarce light of the landing, this painting, still unfinished at the time of the artist’s death, had come home to Ireland. As I stood there, I gazed at his gaze, a gaze even more arresting and engaging than the ones in the drawings. It was like something in motion rather than fixed; it was a portrait of someone who had been lit up by life. It made you want to know who this man was.

John Butler Yeats, the son of a clergyman, was born in 1839. His father had a good income, and had inherited land through the Butler connection on his grandmother’s side. Having attended a couple of boarding schools, he entered Trinity College Dublin, as his father had done. By this time, his parents had moved to Dublin and were living in Sandymount, and as good Anglo-Irish Protestants, they were moving easily in the best Dublin society. As a student, Yeats often joined his parents to dine at the house of Sir William and Lady Wilde, as his son would later dine at the house of Oscar Wilde in London. The lawyer and politician Isaac Butt had been a college classmate of his father’s and remained a close friend, close enough for John Butler Yeats’s father to call his youngest son Isaac Butt Yeats.

Among Yeats’s best friends at school were two brothers from Sligo, Charles and George Pollexfen, whose family owned a shipping and milling business. Yeats, who was charming and open in his manner, found their seriousness beguiling and made a visit to them in Sligo while at Trinity. The town of Sligo, he later wrote, ‘was strange to me and very beautiful in the deepening twilight … Dublin and my uneasy life there and Trinity College, though but a short day’s journey, were obliterated.’ While staying with the Pollexfens, he met their sister Susan, whom he would marry in 1863. Years later, when he tried to explain his decision to marry Susan Pollexfen, Yeats said that her family genius ‘for being dismal’ was, he felt, what he needed. ‘Indeed it was because of this I took to them and married my wife. I thought I would place myself under prison rule and learn all the virtues.’ After Trinity, Yeats studied to become a barrister but spent most of his time with literary friends, including the critic Edward Dowden and the poet John Todhunter. John and Susan named their first child William Butler Yeats. Soon afterwards they had a daughter, Lily. As a law student, John Butler Yeats had begun drawing – and his talent at it, as well as the influence of his literary friends, pulled him away from the law. ‘I meant to succeed,’ he later said of his legal career. ‘My will was in it, that is my conscious will.’ But in his unconscious will, he wanted to become an artist. So, early in 1867, leaving his wife and two young children in Sligo, he set out for London and enrolled at Heatherley’s Art School. His wife’s family, the Pollexfens, the most practical of people, did not approve. Nor did his wife. ‘I don’t think she approved of a single one of my ideas or theories or opinions, to her only foolishness,’ he later wrote. None of this deterred him. ‘The Pollexfens are as solid and powerful as the sea-cliffs,’ he wrote in his unfinished memoirs, ‘but hitherto they are altogether dumb. To give them a voice is like giving a voice to the sea-cliffs. By marriage to a Pollexfen I have given a tongue to the sea-cliffs.’

Since Yeats made no money as an artist and since the tenants on his estate in Kilkenny did not always pay the rent, his growing family, including Lollie, born in 1868, and Jack, born in 1871, lived for long periods in Sligo with the Pollexfens. Between the ages of seven and nine, W.B. Yeats lived with his mother and her family in Ireland, as his father remained impecuniously in London. Yeats’s youngest child, the painter Jack, lived in Sligo with his mother’s family almost continuously between the ages of eight and 16. When Yeats’s family finally joined him in London, they were able to observe the problems their father faced at close quarters. In his Autobiographies, W.B. Yeats remembered as an 11-year-old observing what happened to a painting of a landscape by his father: ‘He began it in spring and painted all through the year, the picture changing with the seasons, and gave it up unfinished when he had painted the snow upon the heath-covered banks. He is never satisfied and can never make himself say that any picture is finished.’ He recalled a stranger in London, on finding out whose son he was, remarking: ‘O, that is the painter who scrapes out every day what he painted the day before.’

In London, Susan Yeats had a series of strokes and became a semi-invalid until her death on 3 January 1900. Since she had believed she was marrying a man who was likely to become a prominent barrister or a judge, and since she disliked living in poverty in London, Yeats had reason to feel guilty about his failure to provide for his wife the life she had imagined. Twelve years after her death the remorse was still with him. ‘Had I had money,’ he wrote to Lily, ‘your mother would never have been ill and would be alive now – that is the thought always with me – and I would have done anything to get it for her – but had not the art.’ Nor did he have the funds. Although he received a windfall from the sale of his land, it served mainly to pay off debts. While their father’s financial circumstances worsened, all four of the Yeats children began to work and make money. From early in their lives, they became determined and industrious. By W.B. Yeats’s 30th birthday, as Murphy writes, ‘he had published or made ready for publication seven books (and American editions of four of them), had seen 173 essays, letters or poems published by 29 different periodicals, and had edited or contributed to 14 other volumes.’ He was quite the contrast to his father: ‘It is this infirmity of will,’ W.B. Yeats wrote to Quinn, ‘which has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined his career. He even hates the sign of will in others … The qualities which I thought necessary to success in art or in life seemed to him “egotism” or “selfishness” or “brutality”. I had to escape this family drifting, innocent and helpless.’

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