Yeats, Lily and Elizabeth

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Yeats, Lily and Elizabeth

Irish artisans, printers and publishers whose Cuala Press produced books by such writers as J.M. Synge and their brother W.B. Yeats in editions noted for grace and simplicity.

Yeats, Lily (1866–1949). Irish embroiderer, printer and publisher. Born Susan Mary Yeats on August 25, 1866, at Enniscrone, County Sligo, Ireland; died on January 5, 1949, in Dublin, Ireland; eldest daughter of John Butler Yeats, known as J.B. Yeats, and Susan Pollexfen Yeats; sister of William Butler Yeats (the poet); educated at home, at Notting Hill School, London, and at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin; never married; no children.

Yeats, Elizabeth (1868–1940). Irish printer and publisher. Name variations: Lolly Yeats. Born Elizabeth Corbet Yeats on March 11, 1868, in Regent's Park, London, England; died on January 16, 1940, in Dublin, Ireland; second daughter of John Butler Yeats, known as J.B. Yeats, and Susan Pollexfen Yeats; sisterof William Butler Yeats (the poet); educated at home, at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin, and at Froebel College, London; never married; no children.

In her biography of sisters Lily and Elizabeth Yeats (who were always known as Lily and Lolly, respectively), Gifford Lewis observes that the four surviving Yeats children were products of a failed marriage. Their father's incapacity as a provider for his wife and family cramped the lives of his children and meant that they had to fend for themselves at an early age. This affected the family dynamics. William Butler Yeats (Willie to the family) and Lily, the two eldest, were competent and managerial; Lolly and Jack "were the youngsters of whom not much was expected." Jack eventually went his own way and became a famous painter. This left Lolly in a position of almost continuous friction with her older siblings.

Their parents had married in 1863 but their mother Susan Pollexfen Yeats soon discovered that her husband J.B. Yeats, for all his handsome appearance and charm, was chronically feckless where money was concerned. In 1867, he decided to train as an artist and moved his family to London where Lolly was born. Susan Yeats opposed his decision to become an artist, and as the family's upheavals continued over the following decades she gradually descended into invalidism and silence after a series of strokes. However, her family home in Sligo provided a stable base for the children as they were growing up, and in the early 1870s they lived there for two years while their father remained in London, trying, unsuccessfully, to make a career as an artist. Between 1876 and 1883, the family moved back and forth between London and Dublin. Some semblance of stability was provided by a governess, Martha Jowitt , who made the sisters more disciplined and neat. Lily also attended Notting Hill School for a brief period.

In 1883, when plans to send Lily to Alexandra College in Dublin were frustrated because of her father's debts, she and Lolly enrolled at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, although they were unimpressed by the quality of the teaching. The family moved back to London in 1886, and Lolly effectively became the housekeeper. Lily started work as an embroiderer for William Morris' daughter, May Morris , at Kelmscott Manor; some years later Lolly also worked for May Morris as a children's art teacher. Through their work for the Morrises, the Yeats sisters gained a vital introduction to the Arts and Crafts movement which decisively influenced their future careers. Lolly's interest in Japanese painting dates from this time.

In the early 1890s, Lolly began four years of study to train as a Froebel teacher and in doing so was the only member of the family ever to pursue a recognized course of education. It was a sought-after qualification, and Lolly was attracted by the Froebel system's emphasis on the equal education of both sexes. Lolly qualified with distinction but preferred to teach at established schools, both in London and Dublin, rather than open her own. She was a gifted teacher, and in 1895 she published the first of four brushwork manuals which proved very successful. But her interest in printing grew, and on the advice of Emery Walker, typographer to Morris' Kelmscott Press, she did a brief course at the Women's Printing Society and trained as a process engraver. In 1894, Lily left the Morris workshop after enduring years of May Morris' bad temper. She took a post as a governess in the south of France but this was cut short by an attack of typhoid fever. Lolly continued to teach and traveled extensively in Germany and Italy.

The Arts and Crafts movement gained ground in Ireland in the 1890s, and in 1902 a wealthy Dublin woman, Evelyn Gleeson , set up Dun Emer Industries with the aim of establishing an arts and crafts cooperative on the Morris model. She recruited the Yeats sisters for the new enterprise, with Lily taking charge of the embroidery department and Lolly the printing. They and their father moved into a house, Gurteen Dhas, in Churchtown, just south of Dublin at the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, where the sisters were to live for the rest of their lives. Their niece, W.B.'s daughter Anne Yeats , said later that her aunts should never have lived together, as their characters were incompatible. After their father went to live in America in 1907, the sisters' enforced co-residence exacerbated their personality conflicts over the following decades.

Dun Emer prospered artistically, if not financially. In 1904, the sisters became an independent entity within Dun Emer. Lily's embroidered sodality banners for Loughrea Cathedral won much acclaim, as did Lolly's books. The first was her brother's collection of poems In the Seven Woods but their arguments over it were a precursor of future disagreements. Lolly was exasperated by his bad handwriting, spelling and punctuation and was even more annoyed when he blamed it on her poor typesetting. In 1907, the sisters severed their connection with Dun Emer and set up the Cuala Press whose first publication was a book by Willie, Poetry and Ireland. They also published works by J.M. Synge and Æ (George Russell). Artistic disagreements with their brother were now compounded with financial ones, as he was to reluctantly subsidize the Cuala Press, off and on, for the rest of his life.

But Cuala, as Gifford Lewis has written, was not just a cultural annex of W.B. Yeats. It was the only private press run by women, and it was unusual in that it published works by living authors. The bibliophile Blaikie Murdoch wrote of the Cuala style that "it was wholly simple, its beauty of a restful and unobtrusive kind, so that the slim, graceful volumes seem to harmonize faultlessly with the room enshrining it." In Ireland, Cuala's most popular publications were the Broadsides published 1908–15 and illustrated by their brother Jack. They also produced calendars, Christmas cards and especially sought-after book plates. Despite the difficulties caused by the First World War and subsequently by the Irish War of Independence, the sisters held "at homes" most Thursdays at Gurteen Dhas which soon became meeting points for artists, writers and journalists. Anne Yeats was often amused by the strong mix of personalities who attended these gatherings since Lolly liked big social gatherings but Lily did not.

Their father died in February 1922 in New York, having resisted his daughters' entreaties to return to Dublin. The following year W.B. won the Nobel Prize and used part of his prize money to reorganize the Cuala Press. But even after this the press barely broke even in most years and Lolly did not pay herself when the press did not make a profit. Jack was also finding his work for Cuala a chore and stopped in 1926. But in the 1930s it published a number of successful volumes including Willie's Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends (1931) and Dramatis Personae (1935), and works by Oliver St. John Gogarty and Frank O'Connor. In the mid-1930s, Cuala's embroidery department closed down because of Lily's poor health, and in January 1939 W.B. died. Lolly died a year later. Lily published a short memoir of her sister which has been criticized by Gifford Lewis as a misrepresentation of Lolly's work and achievements. Cuala continued after Lolly's death but at a much reduced level, and its last work was published in 1946. Lily died in January 1949 at Gurteen Dhas and was buried next to Lolly in Churchtown. During the funeral service, the coffin fell off the trestles and crashed to the floor. "There's Lolly having the last word," murmured Anne Yeats to her uncle Jack.


Foster, R.F. W.B. Yeats, A Life: Volume 1 The Apprentice Mage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

J.B. Yeats: Letters to his son W.B. Yeats and others 1869–1922. Ed. by Joseph Hone. London: Faber & Faber, 1964.

Lewis, Gifford. The Yeats Sisters and the Cuala Press. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1994.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland