Friday 23 February 2018

Treasures: Yeats family heirlooms

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

WB Yeats' writing bureau could fetch up to €33,000
WB Yeats' writing bureau could fetch up to €33,000

Eleanor Flegg

In 1923, William Butler Yeats bought a dining table from his prize money after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. That table is coming up for auction at Sotheby's on September 27 (est. €1,700 to €2,850).

There must have been some interesting conversations around that table. The Yeats' were a talented bunch.

John Butler Yeats (1839-1922) was a portrait painter who became the patriarch of one of the power families of early 20th-century Ireland. He may not have been easy to live with. His wife, Susan Pollexfen Yeats, was a "shadowy figure" who, according to the essayist Guy Davenport, went "quietly, pitifully mad". Two of her children died in infancy, which can't have helped.

The four surviving Yeats children were born between 1865 and 1871. The eldest, William Butler Yeats, wrote poetry that, according to the Nobel Prize panel, gave "expression to the spirit of a whole nation".

You could argue that his younger brother, Jack Butler Yeats, achieved something comparable in painting. Their sister Susan Mary Yeats, known as Lily, was an embroiderer whose designs made a significant contribution to the Celtic Revival in Ireland. She and her sister Elizabeth Corbet, known as Lolly, co-founded Cuala Press, a printing house that pioneered the publication of Irish writers.

The siblings collaborated, with Lolly printing WB's poems and Lily embroidering Jack's designs. Collectively, they were a force to be reckoned with.

The table at Sotheby's is part of a wider collection of Yeats family belongings, including letters, paintings, furniture, and personal oddments.

The National Library and the National Museum of Ireland had first dibs on the collection. Items including the Yeats family library and correspondence between WB Yeats and James Joyce have been secured for the nation.

So has WB Yeats' series of homemade "occult artefacts", and his wife George Yeats' dream diary. Both husband and wife were into the occult in a way that was perfectly acceptable in their day, but now seems wacky.

WB Yeats' Nobel Prize medal, valued at €1.5m, is also in the National Library of Ireland. It was donated in 2016 by the Yeats family, who appear to be handling the disposal of family artefacts in an open and ethical fashion. The objects on sale at Sotheby's range from valuable contributions to Yeats scholarship to engaging curiosities. The correspondence between WB Yeats and his first lover (and lifelong friend), Olivia Shakespear, is estimated to sell between €281,000 and €394,000.

The 130 letters include drafts of his poems and span the 40-odd years between 1894 and 1936. The sale also includes the bureau on which many of them were written (€22,500 to €33,800) and WB's desk chair (est. €3,400 to €5,700).

At the lower end of the spectrum, a retractable telescope is estimated between €100 and €150. In terms of Jack Yeats' paintings, 'The Runaway Horse' (est. €169,000 to €281,000), is probably the highlight of the sale. It was painted in 1954, three years before his death, when his work had kicked off into the mystic.

Ostensibly, it shows a golden-haired child at play, but there's a visionary aspect. There are 35 other artworks by Jack Yeats, as well as some of his belongings: his top hat (est. €600 to €800); his palette (est. €250 to €350); and his pencil box (est. €3,400 to 5,700) decorated by the artist with a pirate theme. Jack, by all accounts, was a very nice man. Of all the family, he's the one you'd want to be friends with.The legacy of Susan Mary (Lily) and Elizabeth Corbet (Lolly) Yeats is overshadowed by that of their famous brothers. The Yeats boys worked in the culturally dominant media of poetry and paint (and besides they were boys, which gave them a head start).

Their sisters worked in craft - embroidery and print - which tends not to make the headlines. This February, an embroidery called 'Landscape at Night' (ca. 1934) by Lily Yeats sold at Whyte's for €4,600. A similar piece, 'Magpies on a Stone Wall', had fetched €5,000 in 2008. There are three embroideries by Lily Yeats in the sale (est. €3,400 to €5,700), as well as a piece of textile art illustrating WB's poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' (€1,700 to €2,850).

An exhibition of the highlights from the Sotheby's sale will be run at the RHA Gallery, Ely Place, Dublin, from September 14 to 16, prior to the sale in London on September 27.

Further items from the Yeats family collection will be sold in Ireland by Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers this November and December. The items include the Yeats family silver, jewellery, paintings and furniture.

"It's all real, genuine gear," says George Fonsie Mealy. "It will make great mementos for people who collect Yeats' memorabilia or who just like the connection with a famous family."

The selection at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers will include a briefcase that once belonged to WB Yeats and is initialled WBY. The poet then bequeathed the briefcase to his son Michael Butler Yeats (1921-2007). Michael made the briefcase his own by adding M. The initials on the briefcase now read MWBY. The M is slightly out of alignment. As yet un-catalogued, the briefcase is unlikely to be expensive, but there's a strong story behind it.

See,, and

In the salerooms


The next auction of fine jewellery and silver at John Weldon Auctioneers (JWA) will take place on Tuesday, September 12 in Cows’ Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin 8, at 2pm. Impressive diamonds in the sale include a hefty diamond necklace (pictured below, est. €12,500 to €14,500), and a Tiffany three-stone diamond ring set in platinum (est. €1,500 to €2,500), but there are also plenty of items with more modest estimates.

Amid a collection of American jewellery are a diamond and amethyst pendant on a 14kt gold chain (est. €500 to €700); and a 14kt gold necklace (est. €450 to €650). There are also a number of lots from Kearns pawnbrokers, including a finely crafted diamond-set platinum horse and jockey brooch (est. €400 to €700). Silver in the sale includes a convertible silver candelabrum that can be transformed from a single candlestick, to a three branch, to a five branch (est. €300 to €600). See


The Adare Antiques Art & Vintage Fair will run at the Woodlands House Hotel, Adare, Co Limerick, on Sunday, September 10. Exhibitors will include Greene’s Antiques, Drogheda, with antique furniture for smaller homes; William Harnett Antique Furniture, Co Limerick, with larger pieces; and contemporary Irish art from Treasures Irish Art, Athlone. “The fair will include four dealers under the age of 30, which is a fantastic sign for our future,” says Robin O’Donnell of Hibernian Antique Fairs. Among them are: Rebecca O’Beirne of Co Clare (smalls); Matt Weldon (jewellery); and Garry McConnell of Co Galway (militaria).

Also on September 10, Vintage Ireland will run an antiques and vintage fair at Clontarf Castle Hotel, Dublin 3. Expect an array of trendy vintage items ranging from designer jewellery and fashion accessories (for both men and women) to mid-century homeware. Both fairs run from 11am to 6pm and admission to each is €3.50.


An auction of fine art, antique furniture, and other collectibles will take place at Milltown Country Auction Rooms, Dromiskin, Dundalk, Co Louth, on Monday, September 11 at 12 noon. The sale will include paintings by known artists such as Simon Coleman, Desmond Hickey, Patrick Reel and Norman McCaig, as well as the complete contents of a period home in Dunboyne, Co Meath. Among the larger pieces on offer are: a Georgian mahogany inlaid secretaire bookcase; a Regency mahogany linen press; and an early 19th-century oak settle bench with a carved back.

There will also be many smaller items: a canteen of cutlery, brass and copperware, oil lamps, clocks, and porcelain. The auction is conducted by Lev Mitchell & Sons Auctioneers & Valuers in conjunction with Joe Lennon of Milltown Country Auction Rooms. See

Indo Property

Promoted Links

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Life