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The Maggie Man by Jack B. Yeats
Ruth Keating, Collections Intern
The oil paintings of Jack B. Yeats are the subject of much writing. His style of painting lively vibrant landscapes and sparkling dashes of light is inimitable. The mobile nature of Yeats’ oils allowed him to truly capture a sense of the here and now. His urgency freeze frames the moment. Yeats worked quickly, often laying paint on the canvas with palette knife in thick twisted knots of colour.
Discussion on Jack B. Yeats’ influence on Irish art often focuses on his later works, but before this period of oil painting he had supported himself for many years by contributing illustrations to magazines. Yeats developed his style drawing race horses alongside hilarious and grotesque characters he observed in London society. His quick wit and nimble style earned him a reputation as an accomplished illustrator.
Drawing on memories of his own childhood in Sligo, in 1912 Yeats published Life in the West of Ireland, a collection of line drawings as well as reproductions of recent oils. He was inspired by the travelling circuses and county fairs that he witnessed as a boy, as well as ordinary people living simple lives the villages of Ireland. The book features drawings of festive moments such as The Circus Procession in the Town and The Horse Fair of Ballinasloe, as well as documenting the sanguinity of bonfire night or the serious demeanours of the men, as in The Tinker and A Man With a Broken Head. There also features an early incarnation of The Maggie Man. A coloured drawing entitled Poor Maggie shows the scene at a fair ground attraction. Thought to bring good fortune if hit, batons are thrown at a dummy dressed in red, the Maggie (from the Irish ‘gleas magaidh’ or ‘object of ridicule’). The drawing shows a dramatic scene, as the Maggie man, charged with collecting the batons afterwards, is threatened with the stick himself.
In the oil painting The Maggie Man, the artist uses short, loaded brushstrokes and solid colours which were characteristic of his work at the time. Yeats spent much of his youth creating miniature theatre sets and cut-out characters with which he enacted plays and skits to amuse his siblings. The Maggie man is heavily outlined, creating a strong silhouette and the red of his waistcoat links him to the Maggie in the background. The appeal of this painting for me lies in the humanity of the Maggie Man. Yeats’ fascination with the people he met in villages documents archetypes that feel familiar and yet are singular in their character. They are part of the fabric of the Irish countryside. We witness this stoical worker as he gathers the last stick. His face is doleful and slightly bewildered as he stands barefoot and looks reproachfully over his shoulder. There is a feeling of having arrived just after an event, perhaps the scene of violence foreshadowed in Poor Maggie. Yeats was a master of the dramatic and the mundane, finding magic in the everyday and showing us the many faces he remembered from his Sligo boyhood with his grandparents, the Pollexfens. The Maggie man is himself a figure of derision, his humble posture and soft look compounded by the confident stride of the well dressed sideshow owner in the background.
The subjects that Yeats found in music halls, circuses and racecourses continued to enthral him as he moved further into his more open style with oils. The figure of the clown or gleas magaidh features many times throughout his career, as in They Come, They Come (1936) and This Grand Conversation was under the Rose (1946). He returns many times to the fairs and racecourses of his youth, capturing the savage beauty of a horse in motion or the mellifluous throngs of punters in the stands.