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Irish poet WB Yeats’ family treasures to go on display for first time

A huge collection of the poet and his artistic family’s books, paintings, furniture and personal possessions, will go on public display for the first time in Dublin and London in September.

books Updated: Aug 18, 2017 12:26 IST
The Guardian
WB Yeats,Maud Gonne,WB Yeats letters
Poet Walter de la Mare, Bertha Georgie Yeats and WB Yeats in 1930.(Wikimedia Commons/National Portrait Gallery)

A treasure trove of Yeats family material, including hundreds of passionate, rueful and philosophical letters from the poet William Butler to the first of his many loves, and the desk at which he wrote them, will go on public display for the first time in Dublin and London in September. The items would then be sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London.

The sale will include books, paintings, furniture and personal possessions relating to all the members of the extraordinarily artistic family, whose lives and work were also woven into the history of 20th century Ireland. The material includes not just the letters from the Nobel laureate poet WB Yeats but also his hair brushes, many works by his painter brother Jack B Yeats, an important group by their artist father, John B Yeats, including family portraits and his last self-portrait, and original artworks founded by the poet’s sisters, Lolly and Lily.

Among the highlights are more than 130 handwritten letters to WB’s first lover, Olivia Shakespear. They met in the 1890s when she was unhappily married and he had proposed and been rejected for the first of many times by the formidable Maud Gonne. He and Shakespear exchanged gossip, news, reflections on the politics of the day, philosophy and literary criticism including his views on her novels and hers on his poems. In 1926, he wrote that he had found two early photographs of her and, in a phrase which became his poem The Empty Cup, added: “One looks back at one’s youth as to a cup that a madman dying of thirst left half tasted.” He wrote to her in 1922 while reading the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses: “The Martello Tower pages are full of beauty – a cruel playful mind – like a great soft tiger cat.”

Image of a plaque on the wall where the Irish poet William Butler Yeats lived: 82 Merrion Square, Dublin, Ireland. (Wikimedia Commons)

The letters survived in the collection because, after Shakespear’s death, her son-in-law, the poet Ezra Pound , returned all the originals – though his biographers believe Yeats then did a bit of judicious weeding. The letters are estimated to sell for up to £350,000.

The collection reflects the tangles of Yeats’s romantic life, including a portrait by Maud Gonne of her daughter Iseult: after being rejected many times by Maud, Yeats then proposed to her daughter – who also turned him down.

“He may have had his shortcomings as a lover, but he was a wonderful friend to women, and drew so much of his energy and inspiration from women such as Olivia,” said Gabriel Heaton, a books specialist at Sotheby’s.

This is likely to be the last sale of such a large and intimate Yeats collection. It follows the death in 2007 of the poet’s son Michael, who became an Irish senator and MEP, and the recent sale of his home in Dalkey, on the outskirts of Dublin, after the death of his widow, the musician Grainne Ni Eigeartaigh.

“I visited the house many times, and the material they had there was just extraordinary,” Heaton said. “They were very well aware of its importance and took great care of it, and they were extraordinary generous in sharing it with scholars from all over the world.”

Letter by William Butler Yeats to poet Ezra Pound, dated 15 July 1918. (Wikimedia Commons)

The sale includes the largest collection in one sale of paintings and drawings by John B Yeats, including tender portraits of his four children, and the self-portrait that, after 11 years, he was still working on when he died in 1922. He encouraged all the children to draw and paint, and the collection includes a family sketchbook to which they contributed dozens of sketches, including the very first self-portrait by Jack, which shows him sitting in a farmer’s field, aged eight.

Other lots include Jack’s palette, and his collapsible silk top hat; a model boat made by the poet laureate John Masefield – who is best known for his “I must go down to the seas again” Sea Fever poem – given to WB; two tall brass candlesticks originally made for an altar that stood in front of the fireplace at Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’s Galway castle; and a textile by Lily illustrating the poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree.

The grave of W B Yeats at Drumcliff, Ireland. (Wikimedia Commons)

Part of the collection, including letters and a postcard from Joyce, has already been acquired by the Irish National Library, and the family last year presented the library with the poet’s 1923 Nobel medal and citation.

In a statement, the Yeats family said: “Our family has enjoyed these items for many years. We are delighted that they will now be exhibited and available for everyone to see in Dublin and in London and for collectors to have the opportunity to acquire their own piece of Irish history.”

First Published: Aug 18, 2017 12:26 IST