Elizabeth Corbet Yeats’s private press was an important cultural and social enterprise, it operated under the Dun Emer imprint from 1903-1908 and thereafter as The Cuala. The last book was published five years after ECY’s death in 1946. The Press frequently exhibited their publications at home and abroad in arts and crafts exhibitions and these positioned their output among other members of the international private press and the wider Arts and Crafts movement.
The 1914 Arts Decoratifs de Grande Bretagne et d’Irlande Exposition, an important and substantial exhibition of arts and crafts work, was held in the prestigious Palais du Louvre in Paris. Its illustrious advisory committee of fifty-seven members included four Irish representatives, Sarah H. Purser, Horace Plunkett, and the Earl and Countess of Mayo. Lord Mayo was President of the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland and he frequently complained about the under-representation of Irish craftworkers in British sections of international shows in the first place, and he looked for them to displayed under an Irish banner. Despite being on this organising committee he was unable to secure an Irish titled section and the show was dominated by British work (Ireland was seen as part of GB). Mayo, in 1914, protested in the Irish Builder that the selection committee were unfair to Irish craftspeople, that the ‘worthiness’ of Irish craft was unquestionable, and that the exhibition was consequently incomplete, and pandered to ‘a favoured group’ of English art-workers.
However, despite Mayo’s concerns, in the first decades of the twentieth century Irish craftworkers were gaining an international reputation. While exhibited as British at the international art congress and exhibition held in Dresden in 1912, The Daily News and Leader headlined “Wake Up, England! British Art Reputation Saved by Irishmen” and the report went on to describe the Irish exhibits as ‘splendid… and the Isle of Saints may again, as in far-off days, glory in a national art’.
Despite their growing success, and as highlighted by Mayo, the 1914 Paris exhibition had few Irish arts and crafts works on show. The Irish craftsperson had single exhibits whereas their English compatriots had multiple entries. Yet, due to their exceptional quality, the small number of Irish items listed among the 1625 exhibits were favourably and disproportionally included among the illustrated pages in the accompanying catalogue. Illustrated Irish examples included stained glass works by Harry Clarke and Sarah Purser’s An Túr Gloine, enamelled metalwork, lace, a hand-printed volume by the Cuala Press, and an illumination of a William B. Yeats’s poem by Charles Braithwaite, possibly for the Cuala Press.
An error in the catalogue attributes the Cuala book’s printing to Lily Yeats instead of her sister Elizabeth. The publication selected for inclusion was the first book printed under the Cuala imprint in 1908 following the Yeats sister’s departure from Evelyn Gleeson’s Dun Emer Guild. Poetry and Ireland. Essays by W.B. Yeats and Lionel Johnson was printed in an edition of 250 copies, the only decoration was the Dun Emer device designed by Elinor Monsell. Poetry and Ireland announced the new imprint in 1908, and by 1914 Cuala had secured its place as a recognised private press among its British contemporaries.
Examples of Irish arts and crafts work on display and illustrated in the catalogue included,
Wilhelmina Geddes (An Túr Gloine).
Some lace works and an enamel by Nora Kelly were also illustrated. While it can be argued that the limited number of Irish exhibits prevented showcasing the breadth and depth of contemporary Irish art industries, the few items on show and those illustrated in the catalogue can be said to represent the acme of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement in 1914. They also reflected the results of the commitment in the then-named Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now NCAD) to raising the standards of art industries on the island, as seen in the recruitment of Alfred Child to teach stained glass and Oswald Reeves enamelling and metalwork, both of whom were English.
Independent of the Dublin Art School, from the start, the Cuala Press’s production values were praised for their elementary design and execution. The July 1922, Bookman’s Journal and Print Collector described, ‘a fine clearness is the prime trait in the hand-printed volumes of Miss Elizabeth Yeats’. The Press employed an eighteenth-century Caslon type ‘and it is with this that Miss Yeats works exclusively.’ Using a good quality rag paper made in Saggart, County Dublin and quarter bound with canvas and paper sides usually in blue, or grey, the bindings were apt in relation to the plain style and letterpress of the interiors and gave the Cuala Press productions a distinctive house style. In setting up her Press, Elizabeth Yeats was advised by printer, private press publisher, and book collector, Emery Walker, and Cuala’s books mirrored the high production values of those produced by Walker and T.J. Cobden-Sanderson’s Doves Press [1900-1916]. Undoubtedly Walker’s presence on the organising committee supported Cuala’s inclusion in the Arts Decoratifs Exposition. Walker himself was well represented in the Paris exhibition and an example of his Doves Press was illustrated in the exhibition catalogue opposite the Cuala Press book. This juxtaposition also served to highlight Cuala Press’s distinction from British craft-presses. Doves Press following the example of other British private presses, to minimise costs, invariably issued out of copyright classic texts. Illustrated in the catalogue is Dove’s printing of the Bible. Elizabeth Yeats’ Cuala Press, under the editorship of her brother William, on the other hand, paid for and printed new material by writers associated with the Irish literary revival.
A popular type of Cuala publication was the single sheet illustrated poem. For example, Charles Braithwaite illuminated several poems by W. B. Yeats for the Cuala Press. In doing so the Press was bringing poetry out from between closed book covers to be hung on the wall and admired, forming a marriage between art and text. It is not known what illuminated W. B. Yeats poem Braithwaite exhibited at the exhibition in the Louvre, or if it was one that he executed for The Cuala Press, or his own unique artwork. Illustrated here is the first and most elaborate of many W. B. Yeats’ illustrated poems Elizabeth Yeats commissioned from him for her Press.
Nicola Gordon Bowe and Elizabeth Cumming. The Arts and Crafts Movements in Dublin & Edinburgh, 1882-1925, (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1998).
Octavius Pelly Dick [compiler], Arts Decoratifs de Grande Bretagne et d’Irlande Exposition (Letchworth: Arden Press, 1914).
Paul Larmour, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland, (Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1992).