State’s in­dif­fer­ence to sale of Yeats col­lec­tion is strik­ing

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Diar­maid Fer­riter

There is a cu­ri­ous si­lence in Ire­land about the im­mi­nent sell-off by Sotheby’s of a weighty col­lec­tion of Yeats pa­pers. The cat­a­logue from Sotheby’s tells us the auc­tion house is “hon­oured to present Yeats: The Fam­ily Col­lec­tion, in which will be of­fered a trea­sure trove of works – many never seen be­fore – that come di­rectly from the Yeats fam­ily”.

The col­lec­tion com­prises paint­ings, draw­ings, prints, let­ters, fur­ni­ture and other per­sonal items re­lat­ing to the painter John But­ler Yeats and four of his chil­dren: Wil­liam, Jack, Lily and Lolly, and Wil­liam’s daugh­ter Anne. The sale, Sotheby’s con­cludes, “is a tes­ta­ment to the fam­ily’s ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent and their in­flu­ence upon Ir­ish cul­ture and be­yond since the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury”.

Is the sale also tes­ta­ment to the in­dif­fer­ence shown about her­itage ma­te­rial of such im­por­tance leav­ing the State via an ex­port li­cence granted by the Gov­ern­ment? One won­ders what WB, his widow Ge­orge and son Michael would have made of it all. The ma­te­rial comes from the Dalkey house of Michael who died in 2007, and his wife Gráinne who died in 2013; their three sur­viv­ing chil­dren in­her­ited it.

Copy­right fees

In 1958 and 1964 Ge­orge pre­sented a large col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal Yeats manuscripts to the Na­tional Li­brary of Ire­land (NLI). Michael also cared greatly for the lit­er­ary legacy for which he was re­spon­si­ble; he in­sisted that schol­ars had un­re­stricted ac­cess to his fa­ther’s pa­pers and of­ten waived copy­right fees. He do­nated 1,000 items of his fa­ther’s writings to the li­brary in 1985 and more in 2000, and later do­nated Yeats’s per­sonal li­brary to the same in­sti­tu­tion, com­pris­ing some 2,500 vol­umes, hav­ing re­jected a seven-fig­ure of­fer from a po­ten­tial buyer.

There is no more ap­pro­pri­ate place for the Yeats pa­pers than the NLI. It was one of his favourite haunts from the 1890s on­wards. He wrote a let­ter from the li­brary as a young poet and de­scribed him­self “just sit­ting here in fu­tile reverie lis­ten­ing to my own mind”. The bril­liance and im­pact of that mind were recog­nised in the award­ing of the No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1923. When WT Cos­grave, the pres­i­dent of the ex­ec­u­tive coun­cil of the Ir­ish Free State, con­grat­u­lated him, Yeats replied that he thought the award was given to him, not just for his own work, but was “a part of Europe’s wel­come to the Free State, and I am very happy that it should be so”.

As well as be­ing a gen­er­ous and gra­cious re­ply, this in­di­cated how com­fort­able Yeats was be­ing iden­ti­fied with the new po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment. A year pre­vi­ously, he had ac­cepted with en­thu­si­asm an in­vi­ta­tion to be­come a se­na­tor and while serv­ing, he fre­quently ad­dressed cul­tural mat­ters. He was very vo­cal about the valu­able Hugh Lane col­lec­tion of paint­ings held by the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don which he in­sisted be­longed in Ire­land. He also headed the Se­nate’s Ir­ish man­u­script com­mit­tee to pro­mote re­search in Gaelic lan­guage, mu­sic, folk­lore and an­cient po­etry.

‘Chief il­lu­mi­na­tion’

In the dy­ing days of the Civil War he said: “The greater por­tion of my own writings have been founded upon the old lit­er­a­ture of Ire­land. I have had to read it in trans­la­tions, but it has been the chief il­lu­mi­na­tion of my imag­i­na­tion all my life.” It was a time, he said, when “we have to build up the ide­al­ism of Ire­land”.

This could be done partly, he be­lieved, through pro­tect­ing and pro­mot­ing Ir­ish her­itage. He also spoke about the im­por­tance of cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions and their wel­fare, in­clud­ing the Na­tional Mu­seum.

The Yeats fam­ily has been ex­cep­tion­ally gen­er­ous over decades in mak­ing do­na­tions of Yeats ma­te­rial, mean­ing the NLI holds what is re­garded as


Sotheby’s says this cor­re­spon­dence ‘is of the high­est im­por­tance to lit­er­ary his­tory’

one of the most sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­ary ar­chives in the English-speak­ing world.

A new phase be­gan more re­cently with a dual ap­proach of tax re­lief do­na­tion and sale. Last year, the fam­ily do­nated Yeats’s No­bel Prize medal, val­ued at ¤1.5 mil­lion which qual­i­fied for tax re­lief at 80 per cent of its value, while ear­lier this year the fam­ily sold a col­lec­tion of Yeats manuscripts to the NLI for ¤500,000.

‘First right of re­fusal’

The State’s cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions were given the “first right of re­fusal” on the col­lec­tion to be auc­tioned this month but the State de­clined to pur­chase most of the ma­te­rial, pre­sum­ably for bud­getary rea­sons and be­cause much Yeats ma­te­rial al­ready ex­ists in th­ese cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions.

All the more rea­son to lament that the col­lec­tion has not been do­nated. The ma­te­rial has a com­bined val­u­a­tion of just over ¤2 mil­lion but could re­alise a lot more. Of great in­ter­est will be a hefty col­lec­tion of cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Yeats and his life-long friend, English writer Olivia Shake­spear.

Ac­cord­ing to Sotheby’s, this cor­re­spon­dence “in which Yeats writes about his be­liefs, pas­sions and poetic de­vel­op­ment, is of the high­est im­por­tance to lit­er­ary his­tory and is an ex­cep­tional rar­ity on the open mar­ket”. It is a great pity such rar­ity looks like be­com­ing the norm.

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