Sophie Gorman talks to the Dublin brothers Alex and Joel Verner about their in-depth TV programme on Ireland’s greatest painter
“There is only one art and that is the art of living,” said one of Ireland’s greatest artists, Jack B Yeats, in an interview with Eamonn Andrews in 1947. This enduring explanation of art features in a revealing new Averner Films documentary about Yeats to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the year of his birth. Scripted by Colm Tóibín and narrated by Pierce Brosnan, the story of WB’s youngest sibling is one of the jewels in the crown of RTÉ’s autumn arts schedule.
“What is quite extraordinary is that this is actually the first documentary about Jack B Yeats of this kind,” says director Alex Verner, one half of Averner Films with his producer brother Joel.
Speaking from their homes in Kent, England, these two Dublin brothers cannot quite believe that they got to tell his story.
And it all began with a very good hunch. The brothers heard that Irish Republican Ernie O’Malley’s son Cormac was selling off his father’s prized art collection at an auction in Dublin in 2019.
“We instantly realised that this was going to be a landmark event, grabbed our cameras and jumped on a ferry,” says the younger brother Joel.
“We managed to get exclusive access to the sale and that was definitely the beginning. But then what was really exciting was when we discovered that, aside from academic works, there has never been any real documentary made about Jack. Ireland’s greatest painter — how had his story never been told?”
The Jack B Yeats we meet here is a man born in England but with his soul deeply rooted in Ireland from childhood when his parents sent him to live alone with his grandparents in Sligo.
He remained Irish to the core but with the crucial and critical eye of an outsider. He was there to capture key moments in Ireland’s history at the turn of the 20th century right up to his death in 1957.
“When you look at Jack’s work, he’s often looking at life through windows, isolated on the other side,” agrees Alex. “Jack’s paintings add to our knowledge about life at that time in Ireland. He understood where the real power lies, not in the heart of a battle with all the guns and bullets. He depicted instead the tragic aftermath. He showed how normal tragedy can actually be.”
The brothers knew that the key would be putting the right team together to tell this story and their first step was to involve Colm Tóibín. Tóibín had written an article about how Yeats was his hero and the brothers realised he was the only person who could write the film they wanted to make.
Did Tóibín’s involvement then help to get Pierce Brosnan on board? “Yes and no,” explains Alex. “Pierce is a very creative person, he was actually in the process of establishing himself as a visual artist before he became an actor. So this story of Irish art already resonated with him.”
“But the hook was certainly Colm’s script,” says Joel. “Colm tells Jack’s story in a way that it had never been told before. It’s very contemplative, philosophical and nuanced.”
The emotional climax of their film is when Cormac O’Malley talks about his personal emotional relationship with one particularly haunting Yeats’ painting Death for Only One.
Cormac speaks touchingly about how he lived with this painting on his walls for 40 years but then had to take it down after the death of his wife, explaining it was too painful to look at it any more.
The story of this particular painting doesn’t end at the auction. The brothers wanted to see where the painting went after it sold for €470,000.
They travelled to its new home in Oxfordshire to interview its latest owner, John Kennedy, with this painting taking pride of place.
“He had instantly developed his own relationship with it and had his own take on why it is such a powerful piece, why it resonates so much.”
Averner Films’ previous productions include many sports films including a number of mixed martial arts films starring Conor McGregor. This arts documentary certainly marks quite the change in pace for the brothers and they took different paths to arrive at it.
Joel worked in PR in London, representing luxury brands, and Alex trained as a camera assistant on nature documentaries in central Africa. “Lions and elephants and all that,” says Alex. “That taught me how to observe the world rather than trying to shape it. I think learning that discipline helped me with this film, I knew I had to let the story tell itself rather than trying to shape it.” It’s true, no one can give a lion directions.
What unexpectedly emerges in this film is that Jack B Yeats had a dry sense of humour, a sideways wit.
“He apparently could be very salty,” says Alex. “He even wrote his own epitaph and it was ridiculously silly.”
In another excerpt from Andrews’ 1947 interview, Yeats is asked about advice for young artists. He replies: “I gave up giving advice years ago. And, if it sounds like advice, remember it is subject to revision and, when I am 12 hours older, I might like to change it.”
‘Jack B Yeats — The Man Who Painted Ireland’ premieres at 10.15pm on October 21 on RTÉ 1. It will then be available on the RTÉ Player