The Art of Transport by Jack B. Yeats

ByDavid M. Conte

Oct 5, 2021

Extract from the October 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In the early 1900s, Dublin had one of the most extensive tram networks in the world. From Blessington in the Wicklow Mountains to Lucan to the River Liffey, from Howth on the north side of the bay to Dalkey in the south, the town could be traversed. Rural Ireland also had an extensive rail network. In the wilds of West Cork, Bantry, Schull, Baltimore, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Kinsale and many places in between were all interconnected at once. What now appears to be a hopelessly utopian future is really a thing of the past.

‘Jack B. Yeats: Painting and Memory’ at the National Gallery of Ireland marks the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth. It is the largest exhibition of Yeats oil paintings in 50 years, bringing together 84 paintings. Several have trains and trams. Irish painting more generally maintains a curious relationship with these modes of transport. In 1925, Paul Henry produced the first of a series of travel posters for the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company. They romanticized and commodified the Irish landscape, describing it as being largely devoid of people. The only signs of life are an occasionally whitewashed thatched cottage in the foreground. There is no train in sight. With Yeats’ paintings, on the other hand, we see the train or the streetcar. Or rather, as with Look ahead, look back (1945), we are often placed inside these vehicles, alongside other passengers. In a car sit two figures on either side of a table, one looking up, the other down. They are distinct but barely distinguishable from their dark surroundings. The window beyond frames a luminous landscape, momentarily still but passing. Looking from within, we are disconcertingly placed in the midst of an intangible sense of time and space.

Look ahead, look back (detail; 1945), Jack B. Yeats. Private collection. Photo: Prudence Cuming; © Estate of Jack B. Yeats, DACS London, IVARO Dublin, 2021

Yet Yeats is not a simple recorder of the impressions of modernity. His career and working practices have developed in unusual ways. He had no conventional training in oils, but began working as a commercial illustrator in London in the late 1880s and established himself in the art world as a watercolourist a decade later. It was only at the end of his thirties that he began to paint in oils regularly. He produced more than half of his paintings (out of some 1,200) in his seventies and eighties, during the last 15 years of his life. Painted in the studio, these were inspired by his memories and sketchbooks from his youth to create an enigmatic pictorial language, offered by an increasingly intrepid exploration of the expressive possibilities of line, color and texture.

Decidedly taciturn, Yeats was notoriously suspicious of talking about his paintings. Its titles range from simple descriptive, such as Looking down on the old Bowmore Racecourse, Sligo (1944), literary and lyric, as with And so my brother hello and goodbye forever (1945) – a translation of the last line of Catullus’s elegy to the “silent ashes” of his deceased brother. The thematic groupings of the curators offer other anchoring points: “Place”, “Characters”, “Ephemeral moments”, “The epic of everyday life”, “Memories and reimaginations”. These give a sense of how Yeats’s work is both grounded in real places and people, yet highly imaginative and metaphysical.

Bachelor Walk, In Memory (1915), Jack.  B. Yeats.

Baccalaureate walk, In memory (1915), Jacques. B. Yeats. Photo: National Gallery of Ireland

The key to this apparent paradox is Yeats’ limpid brush. The exhibition contains a handful of paintings from the 1910s, including Baccalaureate walk, In memory (1915) and Double jockeys act (1916). The first is a rightly famous political painting, a direct response to the British Army killing four civilians on a Dublin street after Irish volunteers disembarked weapons in Howth. Double jockeys act stems from Yeats’ interest in the stage characters he had drawn in the traveling circuses and fairs of rural Ireland. In neither has Yeats yet transferred his mastery of the drawn line to painting. Around 1920, there was a kind of leap forward. In Approaching Rosses Point, early in the morning (1920) and Dawn, Holyhead (1920), for example, the palette is still relatively felted, the composition clearly realistic. Yet painting, especially in its modeling of the human figure, is on the way to becoming all-line.

Yeats’ palette has become particularly multicolored. Equally striking, however, is its distinctive use of white and black. In the exquisite little picture One morning (1936), bought several times by a young Samuel Beckett, a preponderance of white seems to affirm that the whole scene is fortunately inconsistent. The figures dressed in black blending into a black urban landscape in Dublin Ferry Number One – Dinner Time (1927), meanwhile, seem to offer, without judgment or regret, the living as coinciding with the dead. Here, as elsewhere, Yeats manages to pull off the trick of rendering the human face curiously devoid of features but still resolutely present. Open mouths, often singing, are also a recurring motif: the titles of five paintings in the exhibition are “Chant” followed by the title of a song. From a quasi-emptiness opens a mouth in Sing “Rolling Home (1946), the song trapped in the still moment of the image.

One Morning (1936), Jack B. Yeats.  National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

One morning (1936), Jack B. Yeats. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland; © Estate of Jack B. Yeats, DACS London, IVARO Dublin, 2021

In the 1940s and 1950s, another characteristic effect was the rendering of his figures in vigorous impasto, but against a background that had barely begun, the canvas not primed, the streaks of oil paint seemed to be a simple wash. In Young and old roadsters (1955) one kind of sketch is played against another. A couple of presences are inscribed at an insurmountable distance from the landscape in which they wander. This painting is usually hung at the Art Institute of Chicago. Many others collected in the exhibition are in private hands. These include the great late masterpiece The basin in which Pilate washed his hands (1951), which dominates the last room of the exhibition. A seductive and mysterious work with an intricate texture, it is a painting, like so many others by Yeats, that really needs to be seen in the flesh. Catch it while you can. Why not take the train?

‘Jack B. Yeats: Painting and Memory’ is in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, from September 4-February 6, 2022.

Extract from the October 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.