Anne Butler Yeats


“I wanted to strike out on my own. But the combination of being a woman and being a Yeats was difficult. There was a sense that by the third generation, it must be wearing thin. Also, I was never sure that if I was praised, it was because I was a Yeats; or if I was blamed, it was because I was a Yeats.”

Anne Yeats, born in 1919, was William Butler Yeats’ oldest child and only daughter. Days after her birth he wrote the poem “A Prayer for My Daughter,” and he wished her to be beautiful but not too beautiful…not distracting to men, not so beautiful she can be dull and selfish. He wished her to stay in one place, like a tree, “O may she live like some green laurel/Rooted in one dear perpetual place.” And he wished her not to be too opinionated, “So let her think opinions are accursed.” He wished her to be married “And may her bridegroom bring her to a house/Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious.”

Anne Butler Yeats never married, and she traveled the world. She worked as a set designer and a painter, and though she exhibited fairly often, as she says, she could never be sure it was on her own merits.

To this day, most biographies of Anne Yeats attribute her success to her family name, and her work is frequently dismissed as “charming” or “childish.” But these words make no sense when you see the work itself, which is often dark, questioning, powerful, and beautifully-executed. Perhaps the strength of her work was unexpected of a woman at that time (or any time). Perhaps it was too opinionated, or raised questions people didn’t want to talk about. Perhaps the subject matter, though wonderfully honest and human, was not lofty enough to those who expected grand Yeatsian flourish and fantasy. Some of her earlier theater design and a few of her paintings are brightly-colored examinations of Irish mythology, and perhaps these were expected, and it was easy to overlook the rest.

Forgotten Shelf

WB Yeats, famously, was in love with revolutionary firebrand Maud Gonne. He proposed to her several times in his life, and she refused him each time. In 1917, at the age of 52, he proposed to Gonne’s daughter Iseult, who refused him as well. A few weeks later, smarting from the rejection, he proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees. They married in a public registry office, witnessed by her mother and Ezra Pound. They had two children, Anne and Michael.

“Father was really more like our grandfather; it was Mother who kept the house together,” Anne recalled “She tried to give us as normal an upbringing as possible. She probably knew some famous men’s children and didn’t want us to turn out the same way.” She sent them both to boarding school, where Michael would be tortured with the poem Yeats had written for him at birth. “I thought the poem he wrote about me was awful, so maudlin. I suppose after he wrote his famous one about Anne, he felt after I came along that he’d better write one about me too. But it is not a good poem. All that stuff about little Michael in bed. I was in boarding-school with tough, rugby-playing boys. They got hold of the poem and used to follow me around shouting `Bid a strong ghost'” (the opening words of the poem).

Both Anne and Michael recall WB Yeats as being somewhat distant, annoyed by children’s voices, and constantly immersed in his poetry. “If he started to wave his hands to the rhythm then we knew it was time to fade away and keep quiet. He couldn’t bear voices around him when he was working, or even having someone in the same room.” She recalls one instance when she happened to take the same bus home as her father. He didn’t notice her, and sat waving his hand and mumbling to himself, so she didn’t make her presence known until they arrived at the gate of her house, when he said to her, “Who did you wish to see?” But she “did not take it amiss.” WB Yeats died when Michael was seventeen, and Michael recalls only one meaningful conversation with his father in his entire life.

Anne was luckier, or perhaps less was expected of her. She was unhappy at boarding school, and at 13 was allowed to live at home and attend art school. She was also taught painting by her aunt Lolly Yeats. At 16 she began working on set design at the Abbey theater, where she designed sets for several productions of her father’s plays. Her father died when she was 19. She continued to work for the Peacock Theatre, the Cork Opera House, the Olympia and Gaiety Theatres, and the Lyric Theatre. She designed book covers and did illustrations for the works of many Irish authors. She studied stage design and modern painting in Paris. From 1949 she traveled the world, sketchbook in hand through Europe, India, Egypt, China,USA, and Canada.

In 1957 she moved to a second-floor studio-apartment at 39 Upper Mount street in Dublin. She changed her focus to painting many years after her father’s death, and she was determined not to be influenced by his work, nor by the work of his artist brother Jack Yeats. “I wanted to strike out on my own.” She constantly experimented with new forms of visual expression, working with oil and watercolor and wax, and lithography and etching. Her subject matter was often quotidian and full of humanity; rags, dusty corners, laundry hanging on a line, a woman peeling potatoes, men gathered on a street corner on a Sunday morning.

But there’s such a strength to her work, such a depth of color and texture, such a sharp slicing perfection of composition, that these things become beautiful, notable, and important. They often have a sort of glow to them that elevates them beyond the every day. And a few of them hint at a life of the mind or the soul that transcends their humble presentation. A woman slumped in a chair in a drab housedress is dreaming, perhaps even composing poems in her head. A ghostly curl of cloth could be a circle, rose, or nest.

Though she tried to distance herself from her father’s subject matter, we remember that he did write about rags, at the end of his life, he described “the foul rag and bone shop of his heart.” For him this is a place he finds himself when he is abandoned by his imagination–by the myths and stories and characters that have sustained him throughout his life and career. But these myths and symbols, the long, blotting shadow of his own self as a creature of myth and history, might have threatened to devalue Anne’s own imagination, and to darken her vision. It is beautiful to me that she shows us the beauty in these overlooked and discarded objects and people. It feels fierce, and rebellious, and remarkably, bravely, honestly human.

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