Augustus John OM

W.B. Yeats


Not on display

Augustus John OM 1878–1961
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 508 × 457 mm
frame: 705 × 650 × 90 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1940

Display caption

Yeats asked John to make his portrait for an etching to illustrate his Collected Poems. John visited him in Ireland, and did some drawings and this painting as studies. He returned to London to make the etching, using a different study. Yeats however rejected it, and chose one by Sargent instead. John wrote privately that Yeats, although he was then aged 42, wanted to look like 'the youthful Shelley in a lace collar'.

This was the first of John's many portraits of writers, and his first commission for the portrait of a celebrity.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05218 W. B. YEATS 1907
Not inscribed.
Canvas, 20×18 (50·5×45·5).
Chantrey Purchase from the artist 1940.
Exh: R.A., 1941 (3); Arts Council tour, 1948–9 (22).
Lit: Campbell Dodgson, A Catalogue of Etchings by Augustus John, 1901–14, 1920, pp.29–34; Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats 1865–1939, 1942, pp.222–3; A. Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet, 1949, p.263; John, 1952, pp.95, 100–1; Alan Wade (ed.), The Letters of W. B. Yeats, 1954, pp.492–3, 496, 502.
Repr: Rothenstein, 1944, pl.45.

Lady Gregory, who owned a large country house at Coole, County Galway, in the west of Ireland, brought John and Yeats together in 1907. In Chiaroscuro John writes: ‘Yeats, slightly bowed and with his air of abstraction.... With his lank hair falling on his brow, his myopic eyes, his hieratic gestures, he looked every inch a poet of the twilight.’ Coole Park was a place where many well-known men assembled and Yeats was a frequent visitor; at this particular time he was hard at work revising his collected works in preparation for Bullen's edition of 1908. John, Shannon, Sargent and Mancini were all to contribute portraits for the edition; John's contribution was to be an etching and in preparation for this he made numerous studies, both in oil and pencil. In a letter dated 25 September 1907 Yeats wrote: ‘Augustus John has just left and I have time for letters. He had done numberless portraits of me to work up into an etching - all powerful ugly gypsy things.’

Yeats shuddered when he saw the etching. He always admired it, but it was only much later that he really sympathized with John's interpretation of his character. In a letter to John Quinn of 7 January 1908 Yeats wrote: ‘Augustus John, who has made a very fine thing of me, has made me a sheer tinker, drunken, unpleasant and disreputable, but full of wisdom - a melancholy English Bohemian, capable of everything except living joyously on the surface.’ It took time before Yeats fully understood the portrait; years later he wrote: ‘Always particular about my clothes, never dissipated, never unshaven except during illness, I saw myself there an unshaven, drunken bar-tender.’ And only at this later date could he write: ‘And then I began to feel John had found something that he liked in me, something closer than character, and by that very transformation made it visible. He found Anglo-Irish solitude, a solitude I have made for myself, an outlawed solitude.’ For Bullen's edition, however, a Sargent drawing took the place of the John portrait.

The oil portrait on which the etching was based (once in the Collection of Lady Gregory) is now in the City Art Gallery, Manchester, while another half-length portrait, similar in composition and date but in grisaille, was exhibited in British Painting To-Day and Yesterday, Tooth's, June–July 1961 (21). The Tate Gallery picture is obviously closely related to these and, being unfinished, is most probably one of the ‘numberless’ studies which John did at this time; another, also head and shoulders alone, belonged to Dr Oliver St John Gogarty and was sold at Sotheby's, 20 June 1962 (65, repr.), bought by Lady Dunn. The better known portrait of Yeats by Augustus John was painted in 1930 and now hangs in the Glasgow Art Gallery.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I


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