Jettisoning memories

Jack B Yeats (1871-1957) Leaving the Far Point (detail) 1946 oil on canvas 35.5 x 46cm ©Estate of Jack B Yeats


150 years since the birth of Jack B Yeats, Hilary Pyle considers the concept of memory embedded in his work

Memory must have had significance for Jack B Yeats from the time he was baptised and given his father’s name and that of his great grandfather, John Butler – the ‘ancestor’ who was Rector of Drumcliffe in Sligo. His parents commemorated the past. However, Jack never used this family name given to him. He was always ‘Jack’, and early on he recorded his distinctive self in a New World-style signature with his second name appearing as a single initial – thus ‘Jack B Yeats’. Typically there’s a note of impish humour in the signature. Jack was at an age when the Wild West was his passion – he had seen Buffalo Bill in live performance, and it would have elated him to adapt his name like this, associating himself with his American hero. But there’s practicality too in this wise move of his teenage years, differentiating him unequivocally from his father, also an artist, who signed his work either with his full name or with the initials, ‘JBY’.1

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