Yeats: The Family Collection at Sotheby's in September

Lot 86, W.B. Olivia Shakespear letters copy.jpg18 August 2017—The collection of one of Ireland’s most important families of the last century will be offered for sale at Sotheby’s in London on 27 September 2017. Illuminating the private world of the Yeats family, the auction will comprise literary material, paintings, drawings and the personal effects of artist John Butler Yeats and his four children: poet W.B, embroidery designer Lily, printing press pioneer Lolly, and artist Jack. 

The sale will not only cast new light on the artistic development of these important figures, but also reveal a little of what life was like inside the Yeats family home. Alongside significant paintings, letters and drawings are unseen family sketch books, a family scrapbook, illustrated ‘scribbling’ diaries, photographs, hand-decorated furniture, Jack’s model boats, personalised silver, a top hat, a hand-painted trunk, and the family dining table.

With over 220 lots in total, estimates in the sale start at £80-120 (€100-150) for W.B.’s retractable telescope, and go up to £250,000-350,000 (€281,000-394,000) for the star lot: over 130 letters between W.B. and his life-long friend and first lover, Olivia Shakespear. 

Highlights from the collection will be unveiled for the first time in a public exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin from 14-16 September, ahead of an exhibition in London from 22-26 September (please see further details in notes to editors). The majority of artworks in the collection have not been seen in public for over 30 years, and the personal effects have never been exhibited before. 

The collection has been cared for by the descendants of W.B. Yeats in the family home near Dublin for over 75 years. For three generations, the family has provided a huge wealth of material to the Irish nation, including last year’s donation to the National Library of Ireland of W.B. Yeats’s Nobel Prize medal, valued at €1.5 million. 

Ahead of Sotheby’s sale, Ireland’s national institutions were given the opportunity to acquire any of the items in the collection. Consequently, the National Library has made private purchases of a number of items, including correspondence between W.B. Yeats and James Joyce, the ‘Dream Diary’ of W.B. Yeats’s wife George, and the Yeats family library. The Art & Industrial Division of the National Museum of Ireland, following inspections of the Yeats Collection in March and April 2017 also acquired seven works (including a walnut reading/writing table owned and used by WB Yeats, WB Yeats’ home-made series of ‘occult’ artefacts, his series of Japanese Noh theatre masks and a silver box containing 8 coins, inscribed SAORSTÁT ÉIREANN. PRESENTED BY THE MINISTER FOR FINANCE TO W.B. YEATS ESQ. A MEMBER OF THE ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON DESIGNS FOR THE COINAGE, 1928.) for the national collection. The acquisitions by both institutions were made possible by the generous financial support of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Additional works from the Yeats family collection will be offered in Ireland by Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers, in November and December, at Castlecomer and Dublin. 

A spokesman for the 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.”

Charlie Minter, Head of Irish Art at Sotheby’s, said: “This is an intimate, personal collection of many never-before-seen works that shed light on the fabled Yeats family, their influence and personal connections. All the family are represented in this sale. There is a particularly impressive group of works by John, too often the forgotten father of the Yeats family. His work appears rarely at auction; this is our chance to revaluate his pictures and appreciate the great intimacy of his sketches.”

Sale Highlights

W.B.’s Letters to his life-long friend and first lover, Olivia Shakespear

This collection of over 130 handwritten letters spanning more than 40 years, from 1894 to 1936, is of the highest importance to literary history and of exceptional rarity on the open market (est. £250,000-350,000 / €281,000-394,000). Olivia Shakespear was Yeats’s first lover and the subject of early love poems, but over the decades their erotic entanglement transformed into one of Yeats’s most important and stable friendships. Following her death Yeats commented that “For more than forty years she has been the centre of my life in London”. She was a significant cultural figure in her own right and shared many of Yeats’s intellectual interests; she also introduced Yeats to Ezra Pound and to George Hyde-Lees, who became Yeats’s wife. In this extraordinary series of letters - totalling some 350 pages - Yeats sends her drafts of poems, gives advice on her novels, writes of his work, life, and reading, and describes the changes in Irish politics and society from before Independence through to the 1930s. 

The sale also includes W.B.’s writing bureau, on which he would have written many of these letters to Olivia (est. £20,000-30,000 / €22,500-33,800). It was used regularly for his correspondence in later years, a period during which he both wrote some of his most memorable verse, and was newly engaged in Irish political affairs. 

W.B. was, like the rest of the family, also a trained artist. The sale includes both an early sketchbook (which also contains very early poetic drafts) and two pastels of coole, the estate of Lady Gregory which Yeats described as ‘the most beautiful place in the world’ (est. £7,000-10,000 / € 7,900-11,300 and £8,000-12,000 / €9,000-13,500).

John Butler Yeats’ Sketchbooks and Final Self-Portrait

The sale will include the largest ever offering of works by John B. Yeats. He is best known for his drawings, of which over 85 are included in the sale along with 11 sketchbooks, depicting his family, the Irish countryside and celebrated contemporaries and friends, such as John O’Leary, Hugh Lane, Sarah Purser and Mary Walker (Máire NicShiubhlaigh). The paintings include his important final self-portrait, commissioned by the New York lawyer, collector and patron of the arts, John Quinn in 1911 (est. £30,000-50,000 / €33,800-56,500).

This self-portrait became somewhat of an obsession for the artist. Though work on the picture began in 1911, it would occupy Yeats for the rest of his life, until his death in 1922. “It fills my life. I have never an idle moment or idle thought. It is a long revel, just as satisfying to me as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and I think I have been at it almost as many years.” - John Butler Yeats

Works by Jack Butler Yeats 

The Runaway Horseis the most valuable of the 35 artworks by Jack Yeats in the sale (est. £150,000-250,000 / €169,000-281,000). Painted in 1954, and one of his final works, the painting depicts a golden-haired child playing. Towards the end of his career, the theme of memory in his work became more enhanced - here the intoxicating impact of a youthful memory is conveyed not only though the artist’s choice of subject but also in the exuberant way in which he paints it.

The Sunset Belongs to You (1951), showing a dramatic encounter betweentwo anonymous figures, embodies a key theme in Yeats’s later work (est. £100,000-150,000 / €113,000-169,000). Transient meetings between travellers on the road fulfil an existential idea explored in the artist’s own novels and plays, and most notably in the plays of his friend, Samuel Beckett. The theatrical poses of the figures, with their bodies silhouetted against an expanse of sky, together with a dynamic application of paint, are evident of Yeats’s keen understanding of drama.

The extraordinary range of material in the sale produced by Jack encompasses original sets of broadside drawings, printed by Lolly and Lily’s Cuala Press, led by a group of four ink drawings (est. £15,000-20,000 / €16,900-22,500); his childhood sketchbook, aged 12, comprising numerous delightful drawings in pencil and pastel (est. £10,000-15,000 / €11,300-16,900); three of the artist’s scribbling diaries for the years 1888 and 1889, when he was a teenager during his second year in London, containing entries of great colour and detail recoding Jack’s new London life (each £8,000-12,000 / €9,000-13,500); a collection of early sketches and illustrationsdating largely from the time when he was beginning to make a career for himself as a contributor to various publications (est. £7,000-10,000 / €7,900-11,300).

Ahead of the publication of the catalogue, here is a glimpse of what to expect from the exhibition and sale, for items at all price points:

Items estimated at £500 and under

• Jack’s collapsible silk top hat (est. £500-700 / €600-800)

• A present to W.B. from his future wife, George: a silver box inscribed ‘Willy from George / July 1915’ (est. £100-120 / €150-150)

• John’s silver ring, engraved inside with his name (est. £400-600 / €450-700).

• Jack’s artist’s palette (est. £200-300 / €250-350)

• Photographs of W.B.’s greatest muse and love, Maud Gonne. He unsuccessfully asked her to marry him multiple times. She was the inspiration for more than eighty poems (est. £800-1,200 / €900-1,350).

Items estimated at £1,000 and under

• Jack’s collection of nine model boats or hulls (est. £1,000-1,500 / €1,150-1,700)

• W.B.’s rosewood monogrammed brushes (est. £800-1,200 / €900-1,350)

• A large pair of brass spiral twist altar-sticks, that stood before the great fireplace at W.B.’s castle in Galway, Thoor Ballylee (est. £800-1,200 / €900-1,350)

• A handmade boat by the Poet Laureate John Masefield, given to W.B. and his wife George (est. £700-900 / €800-1,050) 

• A portrait by W.B.’s muse and sometime lover Maud Gonne of her daughter Iseult (est. £2,000-3,000 / € 2,250-3,400)

Items estimated at £3,000 and under

• W.B.’s chess set, Canton, late 19th century (est. £2,500-3,500 / €2,850-3,950)

• The Yeats family dining table, acquired by W.B. with the money awarded to him from winning the Nobel Prize in 1923 (est. £1,500-2,500 / €1,700-2,850).

• W.B.’s metal deed box, painted “W.B. Yeats” on side (est. £2,000-3,000 / €2,250-3,400)

• A textile by Lily illustrating W.B.’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree (est. £1,500-2,500 / €1,700-2,850).

• Three embroideries by Lily Yeats (est. £3,000-5,000 / €3,400-5,700)

• Jack’s artist’s wooden box for pencils, decorated by Jack with a pirate theme, including a skull and crossbones together with the artist’s monogram (est. £3,000-5,000 / €3,400-5,700) 

• W.B.’s desk chair (est. £3,000-5,000 / €3,400-5,700)

• A sketch portrait of Jack, drawn by John in 1889 (est. £3,000-5,000 / €3,400-5,700)

• A self-portrait sketch by John, 1921 (est. £3,000-5,000 / €3,400-5,700)

Items estimated at £5,000 and under

• The Yeats Family Scrapbook, comprising 47 childhood drawings by William, Jack, Lily and Lolly. All the Yeats children had drawn, sketched, and painted since they were old enough to carry a brush. Alongside portraits of each other, is what can be considered Jack’s very first self-portrait aged eight, depicting him in a farmer’s field (est. £4,000-6,000 / €4,500-6,800)

• Eight photograph albums of the Yeats family, mostly assembled and captioned by Lily or Lolly Yeats (est. £5,000-7,000 / €5,700-7,900)

• A group sketches of family life by John, including pictures of W.B. as a baby and child, the children being read a story by their mother Susan (est. £5,000-7,000 / €5,700-7,900)

Image: William Butler Yeats. Highly important series of 133 autograph letters signed to his close friend and early lover Olivia Shakespear (£250,000-350,000).

Auction Guide