Intimate Yeats letters up for sale

The lives and loves of the Yeats family will be illuminated in letters, works of art and personal effects to be sold at Sotheby’s in London on September 27.

The sale of more than 220 lots from one of Ireland’s most internationally known families of the 20th century comprises the personal effects of John Butler Yeats and his four children, poet WB, embroidery designer Lily, printing press pioneer Lolly and artist Jack.

Highlighting the collection is an archive of 133 letters from WB Yeats to his lifelong friend and first lover Olivia Shakespear spanning more than 40 years from 1894 to 1936. She was the subject of early love poems but over the years their erotic entanglement transformed into one of his most important and stable friendships. A significant cultural figure in her own right she introduced Yeats to Georgie Hyde-Lees, who became his wife, and to Ezra Pound.

The letters offer drafts of his poems, advice on her novels, his work, life and reading and changes in Irish society in a total of about 350 pages. The estimate is £250,000 to £350,000 (€275,000 to €380,000). With an estimate of £150,000 to £250,000, ‘The Runaway Horse’ is the most valuable of the 35 artworks by Jack Yeats in the sale. It was painted in 1954. There are original sets of broadside drawings by Jack B for the Cuala Press, his childhood sketchbook aged 12, and his scribbling diaries for 1888 and 1889 when he was in London.

The largest ever offering of works by John Butler Yeats (1839-1922), best known for his drawings of which 85 are included, is on offer. His 11 sketchbooks depict his family, the Irish countryside and contemporaries and friends such as John O’Leary, Hugh Lane, Sarah Purser and Mary Walker.

After moving his family to London in 1885 he later went, alone, to New York. Among the paintings is his final self-portrait commissioned by the New York lawyer, collector and patron of the arts John Quinn in 1911. It is estimated at £30,000 to £50,000. Estimates range from £80 for a retractable telescope owned by WB to £350,000 for the letters.

The property belongs to the three children of Michael Yeats (WB’s son) from the family home near Dublin. The family has made many generous donations to the National Library over the years including the WB Yeats medal for the Nobel Prize in Literature and a substantial collection of editions of works by WB. The National Library, the National Museum and the National Gallery were given first right of refusal over the collection.

The National Library has since privately purchased of a number of items including correspondence between WB and James Joyce, the ‘Dream Diary’ of WB’s wife Georgie and the Yeats family library. The National Museum acquired seven works including a walnut table owned and used by WB.

Highlights from the sale will be on view at the RHA Gallery in Dublin from September 14-16 and it will be on view in London from September 22-26.

The auction will be held on the same day as Sotheby’s annual Irish sale.


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