Women in Art 4: Susan ‘Lilly’ and Elizabeth ‘Lollie’ Yeats

Yeats

The painter Jack B Yeats and his brother, poet W. B. Yeats are both well known figures of the Irish Revival period, however, their sisters Susan ‘Lily’ Yeats (1866-1949) and Elizabeth ‘Lollie’ Yeats (1868-1940) also made important contributions to Irish culture, both in terms of publishing and arts and crafts.

Both sisters studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and later took classes in the RDS. In 1903, they set up the Dun Emer Guild with Evelyn Gleeson. This enterprise aimed to promote the Irish Literary Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland, as well as offering employment for Irish women. By 1905 they were employing thirty women. Susan ran classes on Irish culture and language to educate the workers about their national heritage. The name Dun Emer (or Fort of Emer) refers to Cúchulainn’s wife Emer whose beauty and artistic skills were renowned, thus it reflects both the role of women in the organisation, and their nationalist aims as folklore was also central to the Irish Literary Revival. Their manifesto of 1903 stated that “Everything as far as possible is Irish… The designs are also of the spirit and tradition of the country.”  Evelyn Gleeson managed tapestries and rugs, while Susan was responsible for the embroidery side of the guild, and was a skilful designer. Her studies with May Morris meant the designs reflected the style of William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement, however they had a conspicuously Irish bent with patterns of Celtic interlace, or the use of Irish wool. Elizabeth had studied at Froebel college and worked as a visiting art teacher in several Irish institutions. She also published four painting manuals. She was responsible for the printing press at the Dun Emer Guild, and brought the experience she had gained at the Women’s Printing Society in London to this venture. The first book printed was W.B. Yeats’ In The Seven Woods (1903). Eleven books were produced by this press, but it was not financially viable and Elizabeth had disagreements with W.B. Yeats, who acted as an editor for the press, and with Evelyn Gleeson. Other productions by the Press included bookplates, broadsides, greeting cards, hand coloured prints and privately commissioned books. Susan travelled to New York with her father to show the work of the guild at the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1907.

In 1908 the sisters split with the Dun Emer Guild and formed Cuala Industries. The Cuala Press was the only Arts and Crafts press to be managed and staffed by women. The designers for embroidered banners included Jack B Yeats, Pamela Colman Smith and Mary Cotter Yeats (whose illustration of Elizabeth and Susan Yeats representing printing and needlework accompanies this article). Susan herself too created many of the designs, and won three awards for her work at an RDS exhibition in 1909. Susan was frequently ill from overwork, and in 1932 the embroidery section of the Cuala Industries was closed. The Press continued, but again ran into financial difficulties. It published modern Irish writers, including the work of W.B. Yeats and illustrations by Jack B Yeats. This reflected its staunchly Irish character, insisted upon by Elizabeth. Following the 1916 Easter Rising, and in connection with her growing republican sympathies, Elizabeth published Thomas MacDonagh’s 1917 address. After Elizabeth’s death in 1940, the Press was run by Georgie Yeats and Elizabeth’s assistant Mollie Gill until 1969.

The Yeats sisters were highly significant in moving the Irish Cultural Revival into the realm of the visual arts, and through their promotion of embroidery they were central to the Irish Arts and Crafts movement. Their niece Anne Yeats (1919-2001) was a painter and a set designer working with the Abbey Theatre, the Cork Opera House, the Olympia, the Gaiety and Lyric Theatre. Her training as a painter began with Elizabeth Yeats, and she later studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School and in Paris. Her painting is modern and experimental, and she also produced illustrations and lithographs. Another highly significant contribution she made to Irish society was the donation of the Jack B Yeats sketchbooks to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Women in Art is an ongoing series I am writing for TN2 Magazine, with the aim of rediscovering works by Irish women artists, and showing the important contributions these artists have made to the development of Irish art.

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