Anyone who has seen one of Jack B. Yeats’s later paintings can easily recognize others. Same for his earlier watercolor work and his pen-and-ink sketches. The distinctiveness of Yeats’s style, along with his characteristic choice of subjects, have made him one of the most unmistakable and well-known Irish artists.
Yet, were average gallery-goers to encounter “A Broad Sheet,” they may not readily associate it with Yeats. The flat color fields and vaguely abstract forms, akin to scissored silhouettes, conjure up neither the cartoonist he was nor the expressionist he became. Observant viewers might nevertheless decipher the clever “JBY” monogram in the lower left corner, or take a clue from the title, both realized in reverse stencil.
Between 1902-1903, while living in Devonshire, Yeats produced a monthly series of broadsides, also titled A Broad Sheet, which combined verse with hand-colored woodcut illustrations, collaborating first with Pamela Colman Smith and subsequently with his wife, Mary Cottenham (“Cottie”). In 1908, Yeats helped his sisters, Susan Mary (“Lily”) and Elizabeth (“Lolly”), launch their Cuala Press in Dublin by supplying sketches and texts for a comparable periodical titled A Broadside.
Unlike those broadsides, this “Broad Sheet” and a few others like it were neither published nor sold. They seem to have been created as experiments without any particular end in view beyond the indulgence of Yeats’s ever-playful and bountiful imagination. Yeats biographer and critic Hilary Pyle (1994, p. 32) finds a reference to the project in a letter to his New York benefactor John Quinn dated 15 December 1902: “I had a weird thing called the Broad Sheet two years ago, just stencils that I used to print myself.”
We acquired our example from the 2017 Sotheby’s sale of the Yeats Family Collection (lot 182), and the faint, hand printed type slugs situated it within this exploratory period, offering a poetical creation date: “Midsummer 1901.” In a cut-out space in the upper image, Yeats has penned a caption: “This Trout weighing all but half a pound was caught May 1901 ~ by a younger brother of Isaac Walton Esq”—a line cast toward a fishing fantasy mythological poem about a trout by his own brother, William Butler Yeats, “The Song of Wandering Aengus”? On the lower half of the sheet, Yeats has whimsically captioned an image of a fisherman imposed on a rough outline of northwest Ireland “The Fishman in the Orchard,” and a smiling sun on a swinging placard “The Jolly Signboard / Signboard for an Angler.”
Two copies of another experimental “Broad Sheet,” labeled “Number 2,” appeared in the second Yeats Family Collection sale held in 2017 (Fonsie Mealy, lot 677). Yet another example of a stenciled broadside, featuring a sailing skiff, survives at the University of Reading in the papers of Elkin Mathews, the London publisher and bookseller and friend of Yeats’s, who issued A Broad Sheet. The Yeats Archives at the National Gallery of Ireland includes an album containing numerous stencil paintings and cut-outs, as well as stenciled postcards and bookplates. Collectively, these compositional trials and ephemera witness a transitional period in Yeats’s artistic development, from line illustration through watercolor, presaging the oil paintings that have secured his enduring fame.
– Christian Dupont, Burns Librarian, John J. Burns Library
Pyle, Hilary. 2009. “Jack B. Yeats and the Stencil,” in Foley, Declan J., ed., The Only Art of Jack B. Yeats: Letters & Essays. Dublin: Lilliput Press. [ND497 .Y4 O55 2009 IRISH]
Pyle, Hilary. 1994. The Different Worlds of Jack B. Yeats: His Cartoons and Illustrations. Dublin: Irish Academic Press. [NC1479.5 .Y42 1994 IRISH]
Pyle, Hilary. 1970. Jack B. Yeats: A Biography. London: Routledge. [Accession: 12150156]