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Elizabeth Yeats, artist and teacher in the arts and crafts tradition

Billy Shortall.

The Dun Emer, and later Cuala Industries were pioneering female-led studios in the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement. They promoted handmade work, wove beautiful carpets, produced exquisite needlecraft, and printed and bound beautiful books. They served the domestic and business market and they produced liturgical art objects. It was a collaboration of artists and designers using local Irish materials. It is worth quoting at length from the studios’ 1904 prospectus which rhymed with the ideals of the wider A&C Movement,

Everything as far as possible is Irish: the paper, the books, the linen of the embroidery and the wool of the tapestry and carpets. The designs are also of the spirit and tradition of the country. The education of the work girls is also part of the idea – they are thought to paint and their brains and fingers are made more active and understanding…

The workers, almost exclusively women, were offered classes in Irish, theatre, and most prominently in art. Art classes were also opened to paying students outside the studios and the resident art teacher was Elizabeth Yeats. Before embarking on a career as a printer, she had an extensive art education, training at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin over three years from 1883 during which time she took extra tuition at Royal Dublin Society classes, and she attended for a term at Chiswick School of Art after returning to London in 1887. Subsequently, she began teacher training at the Froebel College in Bedford (Bedfordshire) from 1888 to 1892. During her training, Elizabeth worked part-time with May Morris and “gave painting lessons” including at Kelmscott, the home of the Morris’s A&C enterprise, for the staff’s children. Elizabeth would continue to give painting classes throughout her life, at Dun Emer, Cuala, and as an individual tutor.

Elizabeth Yeats’ student entry card for Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin. Collection of the National Visual Art Library.

On finishing her teacher training, Elizabeth taught as a visiting art mistress at the Froebel Society, Chiswick High School, and the Central Foundation School. Combining her knowledge of art and Froebel training, she published four art manuals: Brushwork (1896), Brushwork studies of flowers, fruits and animals (1898), Brushwork copy book (1899), and Elementary brushwork studies (1900). These volumes illustrated in colour using chromolithography, were popular with art teachers and sold well. She earned additional income from the repeat sales of her three Brushwork Copy Books, workbooks which were addendums to her teaching manuals for students to complete.

The TCD Cuala Business Archive (TCD MS 11535) holds three handwritten annuals recording the activity of each of the first three years of Dun Emer, under the title Leabhar Dún Éimire. These beautifully compiled scrapbooks contain original artwork, including examples by Jack and Elizabeth Yeats. They also contain student pieces from Elizabeth’s art classes, and these clearly show the influence of her training manuals and copy books.

Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, Brushwork studies of flowers, fruit, and animals.  Liverpool: Philip & Son, 1898. Available at Early Printed Books, TCD Library. Student work, page from Leabhar Dun Eimire 1905.  TCD MS 11535/7/3 – The Cuala Press Business Archives  (Watercolour on paper) clearly showing the use of the Brushwork Studies training manual (chromolithography).

Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, Brushwork studies of flowers, fruit, and animals.  Liverpool: Philip & Son, 1899. Page from Copy Book 2. The student copies from above the line into the space below. Student work, probably Katherine MacCormack, from Leabhar Dun Eimire 1904.  TCD MS 11535/7/2  – The Cuala Press Business Archives. Watercolour on paper.

From Copy Book 1. The student copies and learns to draw each element of the snowdrop. Student example from Leabhar Dun Eimire 1905.  TCD MS 11535/7/3 – The Cuala Press Business Archives. Watercolour on paper.

Elizabeth taught all her life in Cuala and outside until following a period of ill-health she was advised by her doctor to reduce her workload. A 1936 Irish Times report on theatre set designer, Anne Yeats, daughter of George and William, notes that she was a ‘hard-working student at her aunt’s classes at the Cuala Studios for the past two years’. In a letter to American bibliophile, James A. Healy, in September 1939, Elizabeth, aged 71, and only four months before her death, reported, ‘Personally – I am a little short of money because I have had to give up this term a painting class I gave previously at a big school here – the doctor says it must be cut out …’ This speaks to her commitment to art education as well as her lifelong perilous financial situation.

Some of her students would go on to become well-known artists, including Mainie Jellett, Melanie and Louis le Brocquy, and Lillias Mitchell, who became Head of the Department of Weaving in the National College of Art, Dublin. Louis Le Brocquy would go on to produce a powerful series of brushwork drawings for Thomas Kinsella’s translation of the ancient Irish epic The Tain for the Dolmen Press under the directorship of Liam Miller. These works are regarded as among the finest of modern Irish illustrated texts.

In an Irish Arts Review (1986) article, Lillias Mitchell recounts attending ‘Miss Yeats’ class at Miss Sweeney’s school, Mount Temple, Palmerston Park, Dublin with 11 other students in 1928. Harking back to the Arts and Crafts theories of the interconnectedness of art and design, Mitchell records that ‘Miss Yeats was keen to make us aware of the possibilities for practical application of our work’ to design, for example, to lampshades or wallpaper. Elizabeth wrote to Mitchell’s mother advising her what blank lampshades to purchase for Lillias to decorate and to choose colours to suit the room. Over twenty years earlier the same application of art to design was reflected in the ‘Leabhars’, where most of the illustrated student’s design work was adapted for plates, bowls, textiles, and so on.

Student work by Chrissie Byrne from Leabhar Dun Eimire 1905.  TCD MS 11535/7/3 – The Cuala Press Business Archives. Watercolour on paper.

As a prolific artist in her own right, Elizabeth Yeats painted mostly landscapes and flower studies, a few of which are in public collections. As noted, there are some examples in the ‘Leabhars’, and her work appears infrequently in salerooms.  Over her tenure at Cuala, she produced a significant number of designs for Cuala Press prints, cards, and other items, such as embroidery designs.

Apple Trees, Cuala embroidery, silk threads on blue poplin background, designed by Elizabeth Yeats, executed at Cuala Industries most likely by her sister Lily. Hand coloured Cuala Press card with illustrative design by Elizabeth. C. Yeats and text by Stephen Gwynn. TCD MS 11535/5/5/1/19/33/1.

Blog header image is by Ruth Lane-Poole (nee Pollexfen), Daffodils, 1904, watercolour on paper, painted at Elizabeth Yeats’ art class is from Leabhar Dun Eimire 1904.  TCD MS 11535/7/2  – The Cuala Press Business Archives. Ruth was Elizabeth’s young cousin and would go on to become a successful and important interior designer in Australia, see the April 2022 blog post in this series, ‘TRANSCONTINENTAL THREADS’.

Elizabeth C. Yeats’ instructions from her Brushwork Copy Books.