Artists in the Collection

John Butler Yeats

Born 1839, Tullyish, Co. Down, Ireland
Died 1922, New York, United States

John Butler Yeats (JBY), father of William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), Jack B. Yeats (1871 – 1957), Susan Mary (Lily) Yeats (1866 -1948), and Elizabeth Corbet (Lolly) Yeats (1868-1940) was born at Tullyish, Co. Down. John was the son of a Church of Ireland rector, the Revd W. B. Yeats. John was educated at a preparatory school in Liverpool and then in the Isle of Man subsequently graduating at the age of twenty -three, with honours and a prize in political economy from Trinity College, Dublin.

In 1862, at the age of twenty -four, he married Susan Pollexfen (1841 – 1900), the daughter of a Sligo ship merchant, whose family originated from Cornwall. Soon after his marriage he began to study for the Irish Bar, to which he was called in 1866, but his efforts to earn a living in this field proved difficult and he abandoned law to become a professional painter instead. To this end, Yeats set out for London, enrolling at Heatherley’s Art School.

From 1868, onwards he moved backwards and forwards between England and Ireland devoting more and more of his time to portraiture and setting out to capture everyone who interested him, particularly the leading political figures, writers and talkers of the day.

He exhibited regularly at the RHA and helped stage an exhibition of Whistler’s work at the Dublin Sketching Club in 1884. He was elected a member of the RHA in 1892. In 1901, the RHA rejected his work but his luck turned when Sarah Purser organised a joint retrospective exhibition of paintings by Nathaniel Hone and himself in the same year. For Yeats it was a pivotal moment. Hugh Lane saw his forty-four pictures on display and commissioned the artist to paint a series of portraits of significant figures in Irish cultural life.

John Butler Yeats travelled with his daughter Lily to New York in 1907 ostensibly for a short visit. After several months Lily returned to Ireland without her father who remained in New York for the rest of his life. Without any regular income the elderly Yeats led a precarious existence and relied on the support and friendship of his admirers in America. John Quinn, the Irish-American lawyer and collector, was undoubtedly the most significant of these.