Jack B. Yeats R.H.A. (Irish, 1871-1957) Donnelly's Hollow 61 x 91.5 cm. (24 x 36 in.) (Painted in 1936)

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Lot 56AR
Jack B. Yeats R.H.A.
(Irish, 1871-1957)
Donnelly's Hollow 61 x 91.5 cm. (24 x 36 in.)

Sold for £ 344,750 (US$ 459,692) inc. premium
Jack B. Yeats R.H.A. (Irish, 1871-1957)
Donnelly's Hollow
signed 'JACK B YEATS' (lower right) and titled 'DONNELLY'S HOLLOW' (verso)
oil on canvas
61 x 91.5 cm. (24 x 36 in.)
Painted in 1936


  • Provenance
    The Artist
    Major Eric Peel, 1960, from whom acquired by
    Mr & Mrs J.L. Hanson, Yorkshire
    Thence by family descent
    Private Collection, U.K.

    Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy, 1936, cat.no.34
    London, Royal Institute Galleries, National Society of Painters etc. 11th Annual Exhibition, February 1940, cat.no.532
    Dublin, National College of Art, Irish Exhibition of Living Art, 16 September-9 October 1943, cat.no.20
    York, City Art Gallery, Paintings (Presented for the York Festival), 1960, cat.no.14

    Colm O'Lochlainn, Irish Street Ballads, Sign of the Three Candles, Dublin, 1939, pp.52-53
    Dr George A. Little, Malachi Horan Remembers, M.H. Gill and Son Ltd., Dublin, 1943, pp.112-6
    Hilary Pyle, Jack B. Yeats, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Volume I, Andre Deutsch, London, 1992, p.443, cat.no.488 (ill.b&w)

    Donnelly's Hollow is an enigmatic painting that alludes to one of the most celebrated sportsmen in 19th century Ireland and to the emotional power of memory and place. Two male figures stand gazing at a large stone monument set in the midst of a verdant landscape. To the right a group of young women walk past, their frivolous demeanour contrasting with the solemnity of the two men. The setting is painted in loose strokes of red, blue, yellow and green. This loose handling evokes the movement of the grass as it is blown by the wind and transformed by the movement of light and shade across its surface. By contrast thicker impasto paint is used to sculpt the figures on to the landscape. A sense of movement is also wittily suggested by the black outlines of footsteps, a real feature of the site, that mark a pathway up the hillside to the left of the monument. This ghostly trail is counterbalanced by the track at the right hand side along which the female figures advance.

    Donnelly's Hollow is the name given to a low spot in the Curragh in Co. Kildare in the midlands of Ireland. Here in December 1815 the young Irish boxer, Dan Donnelly, took up the challenge to fight the English champion, George Cooper. Twenty thousand people travelled to see the contest and to witness Donnelly's victory in the eleventh round, when he knocked out Cooper, and was awarded a bounty of sixty pounds. But as the resulting fables and ballads make clear, his victory was more moral than monetary. Taking place within a few years of the Act of Union, this defeat of an Englishman on Irish soil was significant, and the exploits of Donnelly, the son of a Dublin carpenter, made him a national hero. After the fight his reputation achieved legendary status. Stories of his extraordinary life in which he drank copiously, fighting to pay off his debts and dying in 1820, aged 32, reverberated in popular folklore. His body was apparently disinterred by medical students and what purported to be his right arm was displayed in a pub in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare for many decades.

    Jack B. Yeats was passionately interested in boxing, having sketched and drawn boxing matches in London and Dublin for many years as a young man. As a collector of ballads he was also well aware of the figure of Donnelly. There are copies of two ballads inspired by the fighter in the artist's archive in the National Gallery of Ireland. Verses in Praise of Our Irish Champion Dan Donnelly proclaims Donnelly's fame in Britain and Ireland and was according to a note in the papers, published in 1815, contemporaneously with the famous Cooper fight. Yeats also owned a copy of the 19th century ballad Donnelly and Cooper which is included in Colm O'Lochlainn's Irish Street Ballads, (1939). This also dates to 1815 and includes the verse:

    Come all you true bred Irishmen I hope you will draw near.
    And likewise pay attention to those few lines I have here
    It is true a story as ever you did hear
    Of how Donnelly fought Cooper on the Curragh of Kildare.

    (Y1/JY/24/6/87, Yeats Archive, National Gallery of Ireland)

    This ballad along with Yeats's illustration featured in the Cuala Press A Broadside (August 1910). The illustration refers to a famous part of the story of the fight in which the beautiful daughter of Donnelly's mentor stakes her inheritance on his victory. She is shown with arms extended in a gesture of triumph, while the victorious Donnelly lies exhausted at her feet. Yeats commemorated Donnelly again in A Broadside (January 1913), the illustration for which shows the two boxers shaking hands at the beginning of the match (Hilary Pyle, The Different Worlds of Jack B. Yeats. His Cartoons and Illustrations, Irish Academic Press, 1994, p.252).

    This painting is not however concerned with the minutiae of Donnelly's fight, nor the hero himself. The stance of the male figures, one of which on the right is Yeats, is contemplative and solemn. The obelisk, erected in 1888 to mark the site of the Cooper Donnelly fight, is tomb-like in appearance. Its strange intrusion into the open landscape is reminiscent of the classical subject of 'Et in Arcadia Ego' in which Arcadian shepherds happen upon a grave and realise their own mortality. The imagery inevitably reverberates with the long legacy of funerals and memorials to nationalists that had reached an apogee in the 1920s and 1930s in the wake of Irish independence and the Civil War. Adding to the momento mori aspect of the painting's theme are the colourful and ethereal female figures. They appear oblivious to the trials of history as if they have not discovered the true meaning of the monument and are able simply to enjoy their youth.

    Bruce Arnold has noted that Jack Yeats painted relatively few paintings in the 1930s partly due to the increase in his literary output. But around 1936, he produced a series of major works of visual art, of which Donnelly's Hollow is one (Bruce Arnold, Jack Yeats, Yale University Press, 1998, p.278). They are all in the large 24 by 36 inch format and include About to Write a Letter (1935, National Gallery of Ireland), They Come, They Come, (1936, Private Collection), In Tir na nOg, (1936, Private Collection) and In Memory of Boucicault and Bianconi, (1937, National Gallery of Ireland). When exhibited, they delighted contemporary audiences. Several of these including Donnelly's Hollow are concerned with the role of memory, both the artist's own memory and arguably a national or communal sense of memory. As in About to Write a Letter, Yeats revisits an earlier subject, in this case the hero Donnelly. Hilary Pyle suggests that Yeats is visiting a place 'associated with the passions of his youth' (Hilary Pyle, Jack B. Yeats. A catalogue raisonné of the oil paintings, André Deutsch, London, 1992, II, p.443). By extension the male figures seem to contemplate their own mortality and the relationship of their era to that of the past. The encounter with the obelisk awakens both nostalgia for a constructed past and a realisation that time moves on and that the world continues to evolve. The inclusion of the young women in the composition is crucial to the evocation of this idea. They dilute the intensity of the theme and enable a sense of progression to hold sway. While venerating the past, this blustery, dynamic image of nature equally delights in the sensual exhilaration of the present moment.

    We are grateful to Dr Róisín Kennedy for compiling this catalogue entry.
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