The Yeats Family Collection
Ireland’s talented clan of painters and poets inspired spirited bidding By Jeremy Dibbell Jeremy Dibbell is the director of communications and outreach at Rare Book School, University of Virginia.
Furniture, manuscripts, artworks, photographs, silver, and even a chess set were among the 224 lots included in the sale of Yeats family material at Sotheby’s London on September 27. The sale realized just under £2 million ($2.7 million), not including a major purchase of Yeats letters by the National Library of Ireland (NLI) in advance of the auction.
Introducing the sale catalogue, Yeats scholar Warwick Gould notes that the stuff of life on offer preserves “the vital ingredient of human agency … A known creator, we say, lived and worked using or surrounded by these objects.” And in the case of the Yeats family, not just one creator, but several: paterfamilias John Butler Yeats, his children William Butler (W. B.), Susan Mary (“Lily”), Elizabeth Corbet (“Lolly”), and Jack, as well as W. B.’s daughter Anne, were all represented in the auction. Gould concludes, “Unlike most family clearance sales, this one releases to the market items each seemingly stamped with an aura of unshakeable associations, the bases of new collections or treasured additions to existing collections, public and private.”
Prior to the Sotheby’s sale, more than five hundred letters between W. B. Yeats and his wife George were privately purchased by the NLI for €725,000 ($856,000) thanks to €500,000 provided by the Irish Ministry for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The library also secured several lots on auction day for a total of €72,675 ($86,000), all works by John Butler Yeats: a watercolor self-portrait, sketches and portraits of his daughters, a drawing of his wife Susan, and pencil sketches of W. B. and his wife. On the same day of the sale, the library further announced that the Yeats family will donate the remaining family archive of more than seven hundred letters from John to his children and some six hundred letters received by W. B. from the likes of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and G. K. Chesterton. This donation, which also includes pictures and other items currently on display at the library, is valued at approximately €8.4 million ($9.9 million).
NLI director Sandra Collins commented in a press release, “W. B. Yeats spent many happy years writing in the National Library, so it is really fitting that we hold the most important collection of Yeats material in the world, now enhanced even further by these extensive new acquisitions.” The library has been acquiring important Yeats material by donation and acquisition since 1939, when W. B.’s widow donated the original manuscripts of poems “Oisin” and “Wanderings of Usheen.” Major donations of books and manuscripts were also made in 1964, 1985, 2002, and 2016, with an additional purchase totaling €729,605 finalized in the last year. This included correspondence between W. B. and James Joyce, the dream diary of George Yeats, and books from the Yeats family library.
An oil painting by the poet’s brother Jack, “The Sunset Belongs to You,” was the top seller on auction day, realizing £212,500 ($284,000). A writing bureau used extensively by W. B. during his later years fetched £187,500 ($251,000), well eclipsing the £30,000 high estimate. An Antonio Mancini chalk portrait of the poet from 1907 also did far better than anticipated, selling to UK art dealer Philip Mould for £112,500 ($150,000); it had been estimated at just £8,000-12,000. A rare pastel by W. B. depicting the library at Coole, the home of his friend Lady Gregory, sold for £50,000 ($67,000).
A lot described by Gould as “perhaps the scruffiest item in the sale,” an early sketchbook used by W. B. and later by his “paper-hungry father,” and containing poetic fragments by Yeats as well as lecture notes and reading lists, found a buyer at £35,000 ($47,000). The poet’s Regency-period chessboard, with a set of Chinese ivory pieces from the later part of the century, realized £11,250 ($15,000). An early seventeenth-century wooden chest, used per family tradition by W. B. for storage and known in the family as the “Monk’s Chest,” fetched £9,375 ($12,500), while a portable burr walnut writing desk used by Lily went for a steal at £750 ($1,000).
Of items that may be of particular interest to readers of this magazine, a collection of bookplates printed at the Dun Emer and Cuala Presses made £3,750 ($5,025), and thirty printing blocks, some containing illustrations by Jack, sold for £2,750 ($3,700).
About twenty-five lots went unsold on auction day. That included a collection of 133 letters between W. B. and his friend and lover Olivia Shakespear (estimated at £250,000-350,000), which Sotheby’s had described prior to the auction as “of the highest importance to literary history and … an exceptional rarity on the open market.” A number of Jack’s drawings for Cuala Press broadsides and cards and a few works by John Butler Yeats, including the watercolor, “Woman Reading,” also failed to sell.
The ongoing Yeats exhibition at the NLI has attracted more than 700,000 visitors since 2006. Collins said that many of the new acquisitions will be added to the exhibition as it is redeveloped during the current major renovation of the library’s facilities.