The sketchbooks of Jack B Yeats

The Sketchbooks of Jack B. Yeats

One of the temporary exhibitions showing when I was visiting the Irish National Gallery last Saturday featured the sketchbooks of the Irish artist Jack Butler Yeats. The gallery has a large number of his paintings and a major archive consisting of  journals, photographs, manuscripts, other documents, memorabilia and his sketchbooks.

Yeats had assembled a collection of over 200 individual sketchbooks, 204 of which are held by the Gallery. By the late 1890s, these sketchbooks had become an integral part of his artistic practice and he drew regularly upon them for inspiration for both the subject matter and composition of his more formal oil paintings.

The displays covered the whole of Yeats’ artistic career during the period 1886-1953 including his time in Britain, his travels to Europe and America, . The books, which are pocket sized so that Yeats could carry them around with him, contain approximately 10,000 sketches.

Jack B. Yeats, 'Baggot Street Bridge'. © Estate of Jack B Yeats. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Sketch of a tram crossing Baggot street bridge, Dublin (1901) (Picture source National Gallery of Ireland website)

Jack B. Yeats, 'Peterswell, Man with Sheep'. © Estate of Jack B Yeats. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Sketch of a man with sheep on market day in Peterswell, County Galway (Picture source National Gallery of Ireland website)

The drawings on display reveal Yeats to be an accomplished draftsman and was clearly able to draft up a sketch quickly on the spot. Many of the sketches are simple monochrome line drawings created using graphite and ink. Others are augmented with crayon and watercolour.

 (Picture source National Gallery of Ireland website)

Given the number of sketchbooks it’s clear that Yeats used to carry them around with him and made sketches of things that interested him or took his eye. Many of the drawings would then be used as inspiration for his oil paintings.

The subjects of the sketches include his passions such as boxing and horse racing and everyday life in Ireland. But there’s also a political dimension – there’s a sketch of a man and boy hauling food to strikers during the 1913 lockout in Dublin and a corn workers protest march in London. And given his Irish republican sympathies it’s not surprising to see a portrait of Padraig Pearse and a large two page pencil drawing showing the aftermath of the bombardment  of Sackville Street and the Liffey quays in Dublin after the 1916 Easter Rising.

I enjoyed looking around the exhibition. The sketches contributed to a better understanding of how Yeats worked, particularly when considered in conjunction with the display of his paintings in the main exhibition. I’d really have liked to have another look but the exhibition finishes on the 5th of May, a few weeks before I’m due to make my next trip over to Ireland. The exhibition included a digital presentation on Samsung Galaxy Tablets which allowed visitors to browse through 4 complete sketchbooks along with some letters and photographs from the Yeats Archive. It would have been great if these could have been made accessible online. Unfortunately there’s only a limited selection of his sketches on the Gallery’s website.


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