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The Yeats Family of Bedford Park: the John Betjeman Lecture

The Yeats Family of Bedford Park: the John Betjeman Lecture, 30 November 2015


It is a great pleasure for me to be here this evening to deliver the 2015 John Betjeman Lecture on 'The Yeats Family of Bedford Park'.

I am not aware of any connection between WB Yeats and John Betjeman, who does not appear in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse edited by Yeats in 1935, but this is hardly surprising as Betjeman had only published one collection of poems by that date.

Betjeman did, however, play a notable role in modern Irish literary history. While on a diplomatic posting in Dublin during the Second World War, he befriended and supported Patrick Kavanagh, who was probably the finest Irish poet between Yeats and Seamus Heaney.

Betjeman and Kavanagh came from very different backgrounds, but Betjeman evidently appreciated the quality of Kavanagh's poetry and a genuine friendship developed between them. Betjeman gave Kavanagh, the impecunious rural poet, a taste of Dublin's social life and Kavanagh clearly relished the experience. He repaid Betjeman with a poem for his daughter's first birthday, ‘Candida’.

Candida is one today,
What is there one can say?
One is where the race begins
Or the sum that counts our sins.

Later in life, a disenchanted Kavanagh looked back on the years of his friendship with Betjeman as a halcyon period. In his poem 'I had a future', he yearned to go back to 'the streets of nineteen forty' (not many people would have made such a statement) and 'Let John Betjeman call for me in a car'.

But back to the Yeats family of Bedford Park! I am delighted to be able to deliver this lecture on this the 150th anniversary of the birth of the most famous member of that distinguished Bedford Park family, the poet William Butler Yeats, who I will henceforth refer to as WB. Throughout this year, we have been remembering WB Yeats’s achievements and his importance for Ireland as a leading poet whose work shows his preoccupation with all things Irish – our landscape, our people, our history and our mythology. Throughout this talk, the poet’s father will be referred to as John B. and his younger brother, Jack B.

Despite all of these B’s, the Yeats family were anything but B-list. In fact, I want to argue that they were the most talented Irish family ever to live in this country. It is certainly hard to imagine that any other Irish family in Britain could match them for artistic achievement. There were six of them in all, and they included in their number a Nobel Prize winning poet and a major modernist painter.

But let's start with the mother of the family, Susan Yeats, who was born Susan Pollexfen, the daughter of a Sligo merchant family and who sadly plays a limited part in the story of the Yeatses of Bedford Park for she suffered a series of strokes prior to the family’s move to this area and was incapacitated throughout her time here. She died at Bedford Park in 1900.

The great talker:

Her husband, John Butler Yeats, was born in 1839 and came from a family of clergymen. His father, William Yeats, after spending his clerical career in a Co. Down parish, retired to Dublin where Oscar Wilde's parents were part of his circle of friends. John B. studied at Trinity College, but he rejected Christianity and, instead of pursuing a career in the law, decided to move to London with his young family in order to become an artist. It was a characteristically venturesome decision.

He turned into a fine portrait painter, but could never mange to make a proper living. According to WB., his father suffered from 'an infirmity of will', which blocked his path to success. He has also been described as someone who had 'an extremely rounded philosophy of life'. As his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography puts it, 'he was a great talker, and this became his chief occupation.' After his death, one of his daughters said of him:
when I look back on Papa’s life, I marvel at his gay courage, talking Literature and Art and Life, and no income at all.

The Yeats family lived at Woodstock Road for two years from 1879 to 1881 and came back there in 1888, remaining in residence at 3 Blenheim Road until 1902 when John B. returned to Dublin never to visit Bedford Park again. John B. saw London as a place where 'intellect and emotion shake hands in eternal friendship.'

Although he came from a liberal unionist background, John B., like all of his children, developed nationalist sympathies and, for example, became a supporter of the Boers in their struggle against the British Empire. In one of his letters written from Bedford Park, he reports on a visit by the old Fenian, John O'Leary, who was a source of inspiration to WB, to the Calumets, a club in Bedford Park, of which the Irish poet and man of letters, John Todhunter, was also a member. John B. reports that he was disappointed that O’Leary had avoided 'dangerous subjects'. He had tried to 'roll in the apple of discord', but to no avail. John B. seems to have been in his element at Bedford Park, with so many like-minded people in the vicinity with whom he could engage in the art of intelligent conversation. Bedford Park was where he spent the best years of his life surrounded for much of the time by his talented children. They were, of course, conventionally unsuccessful years, but this did not appear to bother him unduly. His lively letters are infused with an impressive spirit of optimism at the prospect that his artistic career was about to take a turn for the better which, in terms of financial reward, it never did, although this was mainly due to his own failings. He found it hard to finish any commission and never charged enough for his work.

In 1908, at the age of 68, John B. left Dublin for New York (supposedly for a holiday) and never returned. To his 14 year exile from Europe, we owe the letters he wrote to WB and others which show John B. in his best light. He had an excellent understanding of his son's strengths. Listen to this!

You are at your best in verse. .. Prose is fettering, verse is lightness and freedom and coaxes the soul out of you.

'The best thing in life is the game of life, and someday a poet will find this out. I hope you will be that poet. It is easier to write poetry that is far from life, but it is infinitely more exciting to write the poetry of life - and it is what the whole world is crying out for ...'.

John B was that intriguing phenomenon, a gloriously unsuccessful individual. As his biographer wrote, 'he spoke with sound good sense and delightful humour about art and poetry and people, and the influence that radiated out from him touched a whole generation.' As one of his admirers wrote to his daughter, Lily, after John B.’s death: 'a few score men such as your father in the world at any one time would cure its sickness.'

The great poet:

John B's eldest son. W.B. must be one of the most accomplished individuals ever to live in Bedford Park. He remained here with his family until 1895 when he was 30 years of age. John B. had a complex relationship with his eldest son and tended to be more at ease with his youngest, Jack B. To give an insight into their relationship, here is what John B. wrote about a visit by WB to the family home in 1896:
He has the greatest wish to be friendly and peaceable but can't manage it. ... wherever he is there is constant strain and uneasiness.

During his younger years, W.B. was not enamoured with London ('miles and miles of stone and brick'), tending to yearn for the charms of Sligo, 'for a sod of earth from some field I knew, something of a Sligo to hold in my hand.' But he was attracted to Bedford Park and regarded it as 'a romantic excitement'. It was the kind of place where he could 'imagine people living happy lives'. He wrote of this area's 'crooked ostentatiously picturesque streets with great trees casting great shadows'. It was, he thought, an architectural expression of the pre-Raphaelite movement. The Yeats family were happy here in what G.K. Chesterton called a 'fantastic suburb', a 'queer artificial village' or in Terence Brown's words, a place that was 'affordable chic' for a family who were perennially in financial straits.

WB never wrote a poem about Bedford Park, but then he hardly ever wrote about anywhere else in England. One of his biographers counts just three specific references to England in his entire output of poetry!

Bedford Park was, however, the location of some spectacular writing achievements. He was living in a Bedford Park when he wrote ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and ‘When you are old’. In his Autobiographies, he recalls the experience that created Innisfree. He was walking along Fleet Street 'very homesick' when he heard 'a little tinkle of water' from a fountain in a shop window and this transported him back to Lough Gill in Co. Sligo. He thought that Innisfree was his 'first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music'.

Moreover, it was at Blenheim Road that two great events in the cultural history of Ireland took place. First, the Irish Literary Society, a landmark in Ireland's late 19th century cultural revival, was conceived at a meeting in the Yeats's home in 1891. This was part of WB's crusade to create a national literature for Ireland that would be thoroughly Irish in spirit but written in the English language. Yeats spent much of the 1890s arguing the case for a national literature, insisting that ‘there is no great literature without nationality and no great nationality without literature.’

It was also in Bedford Park that the most significant liaisons in modern literature began. This great event occurred on the 30th of January 1889 when the 22 year old Maud Gonne arrived at the Yeats household with an introduction from John O'Leary. Here's how Yeats described the occasion in his autobiography:

She seemed a classical impersonation of the Spring, the Virgilian commendation 'she walks like a Goddess' made for her alone. Her complexion was luminous like that of apple-blossom through which the light falls ..'.

He concluded that: 'It was years before I could see into the mind that lay hidden under so much beauty and so much energy.' The energetic Miss Gonne was born in England, the daughter of a British Army officer, who was posted to Ireland during his daughter’s formative years. This left her with what turned out to be a lifelong passion for Irish political causes and she drew the besotted poet deeper into the world of advanced Irish nationalism than he perhaps ideally would have wanted to go.

WB died almost exactly 50 years after this first meeting with a woman he came to view as 'the troubling of my life'. There was lots of unrequited love in their relationship but also powerful inspiration for some of the finest modern love poetry, 'one man loved the pilgrim soul in you and loved the sorrows of your changing face' or 'tread softly because you tread on my dreams'. Almost 15 years later, his obsession with her prompted him to write 'Adam's Curse' with lines such as:

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

Right to the end of his life, this women he first met in Bedford Park continued to capture his imagination. In ‘Beautiful a Lofty Things’, he writes of

Maud Gonne at Howth Station waiting for a train,
Pallas Athene in that straight back and arrogant head:
All the Olympians; a thing never known again.

It is hard to know what was going between them, but for Yeats it became an infatuation without end that was indulged in to great literary effect. Perhaps Maud was right when she said that the world would not have thanked her had she married him and staunched the flow of those great poems.

The gifted sisters:

The Yeats sisters, Lily and Lolly, have inevitably been overshadowed by the prodigious talents of their brothers, but they were people of achievement in their own right. James Joyce called them ‘the weird sisters’, but they were anything but. They were two women who made a livelihood for themselves in the arts, and in difficult circumstances with a father who could hardly provide for them and an invalided mother. Their achievement in keeping Cuala Industries in being for so many years ought not to be underestimated.

Lily (Susan Mary) became an embroiderer under William Morris's daughter, May, at Kelmscott House which by all accounts was a difficult, stressful environment. She spent time in France as a Governess and moved to Dublin in 1902 where she helped establish Dun Emer Industries, thus bringing the Arts and Crafts movement to Dublin. Together with her sister, Lolly, she later formed Cuala Industries, which published high-quality books by Irish authors including her brother, WB, and where Lily ran the embroidery section. Her entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography writes of the 'intimate distance' and 'affectionate disregard' between herself and her sister. She died in 1949. The two sisters were thrown together by force of circumstance and because there was no alternative available to them.

During the family's time in Bedford Park, Lolly (Elizabeth Corbet) was probably the most economically successful member of the household. She trained as a kindergarten teacher and later worked as an art teacher at, among other places, Chiswick High School. She gave art lectures and wrote painting manuals which were quite successful.

A gifted printer, she was in charge of book publishing at Dun Emer Industries and later at Cuala and frequently clashed with WB on editorial questions, where he expected his writ to run. The books she published under the Cuala imprint were works real distinction. She died in 1940.

The modernist painter:

The youngest of the Yeatses, Jack B., was born in London in 1871 and spent six years of his childhood with his grandparents in Sligo, which anchored his identity in Ireland. The family moved back to London when he was 16.

His association with Bedford Park came to an end in 1892 when he moved to Manchester. He married two years later, almost a quarter of a century before his elder brother took this same step, and later moved to Devon before returning to Ireland.

He found the atmosphere in Bedford Park less congenial than his siblings. He studied at four different art schools in London. He was still in his teens when he was contributing drawings to London magazines like The Vegetarian. According to his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography ‘he led an independent existence at Bedford Park’, had ‘a great sense of fun’ and was ‘the least troubled’ of the Yeats children.

With his English-born wife, Cottie, Jack B. returned to Ireland in 1910 and identified himself increasingly with political developments in Ireland. Unlike WB, Jack B’s nationalism intensified and he became a supporter of Eamon de Valera, someone who was disliked by WB.

John Betjeman was instrumental in enhancing Jack B’s reputation in Britain when he suggested to Kenneth Clark that Jack B’s work be exhibited at the National Gallery in London. He died in 1957 and as his DIB entry states: ‘no Irish painter matched Yeats in public esteem at the end of his life.’


By any standard, the Yeatses were a great Irish family, but like many people in Ireland then and now they had very strong ties to Britain. Indeed, it was a family that, like many other families in the intervening years, straddled our two countries.

WB, for example, lived more than half of his life in England, but was back and forth to Ireland all the time. The years he lived in Bedford Park were, I think, formative. He was living here when he emerged as a serious poet with the publication of his first collection, The Wanderings of Oisin and other poems. It was from here that he became part of the British literary establishment of the late-19th century and yet remarkably Ireland became and remained the main fountain of his inspiration. Part of WB's value as an observer of Ireland was that he saw us from the inside and the outside, up close and from a distance.

Jack B. became our leading modernist painter, but he was trained in London and took his first steps as an artist providing illustrations to London magazines. Jack B was more firmly rooted in Ireland, and especially in Sligo, than any of his siblings. He later observed that everything he did as an artist had something of Sligo in it.

His two sisters also spent most of their lives in Ireland, having returned there in the early part of the 20th century. They too brought back with them an artistic sensibility that had been nurtured during their time in Bedford Park. It is interesting that, while they lived a good part of their lives in England, all four siblings are buried in Ireland.

And then there was the father of them all. During his long life, he had two places where he lived contentedly, New York in the last 14 years of his life and at Blenheim Road between 1888 and 1902. Both were places where he could gather with a coterie of like-minded individuals and compensate in fine conversation for his worldly failings. His letters show that he gained real contentment on these streets with his fellow members of the Calumets. John B. Yeats. Bedford Park man!
I will give the last word to GK Chesterton:
The intensity of genius and individualism of genius itself could never wash out of the world’s memories the general impression of Willie and Lily and Lolly and Jack … in a unique sort of comedy of Irish wit, gossip, satire, family quarrels and family pride.’

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in London.