Sunday 18 November 2018

This Yeats exhibition is a real family affair

Bruce Arnold

The Irish Art Project, which Theo Waddington runs from his home in Cork, has brought a remarkable exhibition to Dublin. It opens next Wednesday, September 10, in the spacious first-floor rooms of the Irish Architectural Archive at 45 Merrion Square, and runs for one month. It is, at one and the same time, an intimate and a spectacular event, not to be missed.

It is intimate because of its background and sources. Waddington is Victor Waddington's youngest son, and was born in 1945. At that time, at the end of the Second World War, when things were getting back to normal in Europe, Victor Waddington engaged upon an energetic artistic venture, the promotion and marketing of Irish art.

At the centre of it all was the figure of Jack Yeats, the only relatively widely known figure among living Irish painters at the time.

Victor Waddington worked hard on behalf of his artists. On the whole he met with indifference. Having come to Ireland from London, he felt he could always go back. But the country had given him his place, helped him find direction, and he loved it.

A small group of genuine collectors who loved art for its own sake -- they are a rare breed today -- gave sustenance to his endeavour. He had one faithful collector who had racehorses and used to buy a Yeats from time to time to celebrate his love of the sport and its best exponent on canvas, and to mark a victory on the racecourse.

Theo Waddington, like his brothers, Leslie and Max, who were older, grew up in Dublin, went to school here and was constantly infected by what was almost an obsession about the painter on whom their father lavished so much care and attention.

He knew at first hand how much his father struggled as a dealer, where the pictures went, how much they mattered and how to get them back again. He has always dealt in Jack Yeats, part of the time in Montreal, then in London and now in Ireland.

So that is where, in this exhibition, the intimacy comes from; there is help also from his elder brother, Leslie, who took a different course in dealing from that of his father, but never lost interest in Jack Yeats.

This side of the story, which really reflects back over 65 years, is represented by small but vital moments in a personal relationship between the Waddington family and the artist.

There is a copy of Thomas MacGreevy's Jack B Yeats: An Appreciation And An Interpretation -- which Victor Waddington published -- inscribed by Jack and dated August 1945, with a wonderful drawing on the title page showing a galloping horse without rider in a race against a boy riding a hobby-horse!

Other books and early catalogues are inscribed in similar ways. There are smaller examples of collectors' desiderata, such as bookmarks illustrated for gifts from the artist.

The other source of exhibition material of this kind is the Yeats family. This includes some of the earliest material, drawings that Jack Yeats did just after his departure from the family home in London, when he married Cottie White. He did charming cartoons in those days, involving horses and huntsmen, races expressive of his own enthusiasm for the King of Sports at the time and English in their character.

There is a wealth of difference between these spirited drawings and the wildness and freedom of his West of Ireland races, often on the strand, which are also included in the show.

There are book illustrations and drawings for broadsides, one of which, quite small and illustrated by a horse and rider from mythical times, is accompanied by a brief poem of Douglas Hyde's:

Though riders be thrown in black disgrace,

Yet I mount for the race of my life with pride,

May I keep to the track, may I fall not back,

And judge me, O Christ, as I ride my ride.

I first met Theo's father in the early 1960s. He was pivotal in helping me understand Irish art and was a presence at my elbow while writing my Concise History. At that time Victor Waddington put on a number of shows in his Cork Street gallery which I saw, and it was through that activity that many collectors started on Jack Yeats.

Victor had reached a point in his life in Dublin when he realised he had to move on. Jack Yeats had died in 1957. Until this event, Waddington had maintained his gallery in Dublin as the centre of his activity, though he had told the painter it was not going well and he would have to move. The prospect of living in the city without Jack as his main artist led to Victor's departure.

Those early London shows were modestly successful. I remember sitting in on the sale of major Yeats paintings for a few hundred pounds and admiring Victor's skills as a dealer. From that disparate source -- the collectors who chance their arm in the early 1960s on a Yeats -- Theo has garnered much of the balance of the show, though he has still stuck to the early period and to works on paper.

In the early 1900s Jack Yeats painted a large number of impressive watercolours, many of domestic scenes, one of a boy lying in sand dunes by the sea, reading; another is of a seated woman in the west of Ireland at a pannier market; a third is The Bottle Of Florida Water.

This shows the standing figure of a girl dressed in green beside a small window that looks out on the sea. She is tipping the bottle.

Her admirer was a sea-going man who brought her back presents. He voyaged to the West Indies and called in on Florida where he regularly bought her 'Florida Water', a euphemism for American scent he carried back each time, probably to Sligo.

Jack Yeats led an enchanted life, never stopped depicting what surrounded him, never really depicted anything that he did not like, admire, revel in, and transform into memorable emblems of Irish people, of horses, circuses, race meetings, crowd scenes at sporting occasions. He was indefatigable and he lived a long life, never giving up his enthusiasm for it. He is loved for that by the Waddingtons, and this show in Dublin is a celebration of a long and involved circle of time, back to where he started, long ago.

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