Noteworthy accomplishment in the arts among siblings is not as uncommon as William M. Murphy implies in his study Family Secrets: William Butler Yeats and His Relatives. The Arnold, Brontë, Huxley, Mann, James, and Stephen as well as Yeats families all produced distinguished brother and sister artists in the hundred years between 1840 and 1940. What does seem remarkable is the common features one discovers in the formation process: parents whose achievements were less than one might expect given the extent of their talents, or whose early death imposed immediate pressures upon their children. Both of these characteristics appear in the Yeats family history, as does the friction that often arises among sibling artists. Murphy reveals many of these in his impressive book, a work that culminates a lifetime of research and publication on the Yeats family.
Those who know the Yeatses only through the life and poetry of the family’s eldest son (and this, unfortunately, includes most Americans) will warm to the charm of Jack Yeats (1871-1956), whose Sligo, Ireland, landscapes are much appreciated in Ireland and England. At the time of his death, Jack was to the art world what William Butler Yeats was to the world of verse, and there is every indication that his fame will continue. Jack’s early cartoon drawings alone, most of which appeared in the British humor magazine Punch from 1910 to 1940 over the signature “W. Bird,” constitute a distinguished body of work.
Collectors of fine books likely know the publications of Cuala Press, which originated in 1908 under the supervision of Elizabeth Corbet “Lollie” Yeats (1868-1940), the younger of the family’s sisters. Cuala Industries, of which the press was originally a part, derived its name from the ancient barony in which its first building lay. The press continues to publish, specializing in a variety of Irish subjects and authors. A privileged few may own hand-embroidered textiles produced by Susan Mary “Lily” Yeats (1866-1949) and her staff in Cuala’s embroidery wing. Unfortunately, this branch of the enterprise discontinued production after the death of its founder.
John Butler Yeats encouraged the predisposition each of his children had for the arts, though he offered them little that was tangible in formal education or material advantages. His story is fascinating in itself, and it constitutes the subject of Murphy’s celebrated Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats, 1839-1922 (1978). Murphy has added to information presented in that earlier biography by drawing upon correspondence that had been closed to study at the time his earlier book appeared. Interesting lesser known facts concerning the Yeats family appear in Murphy’s new work, principally concerning the relationship of Cuala and Dun Emer Industries, the periodic emotional problems of younger sister Lollie, and the platonic yet risqué relationship of father Yeats and Rosa Butt following the death of his wife, Susan Pollexfen Yeats. Even so, there is nothing quite as startling as the book’s sensational title implies.
Many readers already know something of Yeats family history from the autobiographies of Willie and Jack or from more probing studies such as Joseph Hone’s W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939 (1942), Hilary Pyle’s Jack B. Yeats: A Biography (1970), or B. L. Reid’s work on John, Sr., The Man from New York (1968). From this last work they will know that the father of the Yeats family was a brilliant student at Trinity College, Dublin, who decided after qualifying—and without confiding his intentions to his new wife—not to practice law in order to devote full time to portraiture. In doing this he drove himself deeply into debt and eventually had to sell the Butler family estate, which would have been his eldest son William’s inheritance.
Though the elder Yeats had finished first in his class at Trinity College, he deeply distrusted the value of formal education, with the result that none of his children had any beyond some desultory and incomplete training at various art schools. He thereby diminished whatever social advantages his children might have had by virtue of their Anglo-Irish birth. Since he himself subscribed to no formal religion, his children were raised in none, perhaps accounting for Willie’s fascination with the occult.
It would not be entirely wrong to say that John, Sr., finished almost nothing that he started. This includes even his portraits. His correspondence reveals that he never loved his wife, Susan, and the various Yeats biographies indicate that she seemed incapable of loving anyone, including her children. It is a sad irony that the elder Yeats, by his own wish, spent the last fifteen years of his life in New York City, apart from his children but discreetly supported by his poet son and watched over by John Quinn, a wealthy New York lawyer and loyal Yeats family benefactor.
Such negative examples can, however, be valuable, for none of the Yeats children, improvident though they sometimes were, duplicated their father’s prodigality. Willie and especially Jack remained careful with money throughout their lives, and both showed considerable business acumen in marketing their wares. Their sisters, Lily and Lollie as they were always called, were less skillful in managing the Cuala...
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