Communicating with Prisoners, c. 1924
“Some day I will be remembered as the father of a great poet, and the poet is Jack.”
—John B. Yeats
Jack B. Yeats was born 29 August 1871 in London. He was the youngest of the five children of painter John B. Yeats, and brother to poet and Nobel Prize recipient William Butler Yeats.
Jack spent much of his childhood with his maternal grandparents in Sligo, Ireland, sketching the town’s surrounding countryside. After a return to London in 1887, he studied art and found work as an illustrator for magazines. In 1895, his water-colour “Strand Races, West of Ireland” was accepted by the Royal Hibernian academy. Horses were a theme in many of Yeats’s works, along with boxing, travelling entertainers, and scenes from everyday life, both urban and pastoral. His painting “The Liffey Swim” won a silver medal in the 1924 Olympics arts and culture category, making him the first Olympic medal winner of an Irish Free State.
Although not directly involved in politics, some of his works captured the ever-changing political and societal landscape of his time. One such painting is “The Funeral of Harry Boland” (1922). Another is Communicating with Prisoners, shown above. The painting depicts six women, stylishly dressed and accompanied by a young boy, outside the walls of Kilmainham Gaol, watching as female prisoners attempt to communicate with them, most likely shouting down requests for needed items or messages to be conveyed to their families. The billboard advertisements on the left, along with the modern dress of the women in the foreground, make for a sharp contrast with the women behind the walls of the imposing prison. It is a statement of a rapidly changing Ireland that in some ways, had stayed much the same.
Yeats’s paintings were in much demand during his life time, and that has changed little since his death in 1957. Water Lilies (oil on canvas 18×24 in., 1930) is due to go up for auction at Sotheby’s on 13 September of this year (£100,000-£150,000) while Sleep Sound (oil on canvas 18×24 in., 1955) previously owned by pop star David Bowie, will be auctioned by the same house on 11 Nov., starting at £180,000. For those of us in a more modest tax bracket, the National Gallery of Ireland houses many of Yeats’s more famous works, as well as the Yeats Archive (dedicated by Anne Yeats in 1996), which contains the artist’s sketchbooks, journals, personal memorabilia, and material relating to other members of the Yeats family.