Exhibitions: Small is beautiful

A much-loved Irish painter delights the eye at Waddington Galleries
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Every so often, Leslie and Theo Waddington like to call attention to their Irish background. So this week their two galleries, next door to each other, have opened a joint show by Jack B Yeats.

Their father, Victor Waddington, knew Yeats from the early 1930s and later became his dealer. Victor's sons remember a number of paintings in the present exhibition from their family home in Dublin. One of them is Waterplay (1924), a charming oil sketch of children at some kind of sluice, fountain or stand-pipe: not clearly in city or country, for there are railings in the background, a duck in the foreground, and the boys and a girl might be from anywhere. Dublin, by the Royal Canal? Sligo, Galway, Cork? It's characteristic of Yeats that he obviously saw things in specific locations, reproduced what he observed, and yet painted in such a way that one can never be sure of his realism. Only one picture in the show, Near Schull, Co Cork (1919), is specific as to geography. Otherwise the canals, rocky headlands, mountains, cottages and moors are simply Irish. By such means Yeats suggests that when he's painting a landscape he's remembering it rather than looking at it. He won't be pinned down. A delightful early watercolour, The Little Town (Returning From the Fair) is idealistic rather than descriptive.

Yeats was born in 1871 and died in 1957, so his career coincided with the discovery of modern, self-consciously romantic Ireland. He was also of an age to become a modern international artist. Some innate good sense told him to stick with his country. There is a theory that Yeats should have gone to Paris when young. Had he done so, he would have been in the capital with such people as Matisse, in a city dominated by the late Impressionism of Degas, whom he obviously admired, and Rodin, with whom Yeats's work has some weird affinities.

Then he might have become a Symbolist or, just possibly, a Fauvist, or taken some other unimaginable route. Irish people are glad that this never happened, for then they would not have had such an eloquent national painter. Yeats's exile was in England, where he went to art school and then earned his living as an illustrator. His work was in such low-key magazines of the day as the Vegetarian, he contributed to provincial newspapers such as the Manchester Guardian, designed posters and, in 1892, made more significant illustrations for Irish Fairy Tales by his brother, the poet WB Yeats. During all this time, indeed until 1906, he avoided oil paint. His use of watercolour edged toward oil, but still he held back. Yeats was most confident with pen and ink, the illustrator's basic medium.

The Waddington exhibition has some fine ink drawings, obviously made for reproduction. One of his most elaborate was Greenford Races (c1900). Bookies, toffs, horses and punters make a lively scene in which there are many detailed little stories. It's not original. The style is that of many other magazine artists of the day, including Du Maurier, Edward Sambourne and Phil May. The difference is in Yeats's alienation from his subjects, a rollicking gait in the drawing, and its sadness. Du Maurier et al were really society artists, however much they mocked society. Yeats was not one of them, and his real society was far away.

It looks as though, in Ireland, Yeats came to himself in Metal Man, Low Tide and the mysterious Houses by the Sea. Then come the highly interesting The Steamboat Captain and The Emigrant, a series of semi-realist pictures ending with The Quay Worker's Home of 1927. In such pictures his pigment is unctuous, that is to say oily to a degree, thick and buttery, inviting the attentions of a palette knife. Yeats made up this way of painting for himself and it's inimitable, partly because he was never absolutely the master of his own invention. See how the paint slips and slides beneath his brush. In a picture like The Swan, for instance, the fluency is improvised, then abandoned. You can't quite tell whether the painting is finished.

This is not to say that The Swan is unsuccessful. It is. Yet it raises doubts. For instance, its format is 9"x14", a size Yeats used time and again - on the evidence of this show, for 20 years. It's the classic size for an oil sketch. The small format concentrated Yeats's poetry, but larger canvases were a problem. He could not be free and definite at the same time, and there is a scattiness in his palette. Yeats is a national painter who never produced a national icon or a great mural decoration, as such artists usually do, or did. Perhaps Ireland had no need of such motifs, and the 9"x14" size may be just right for the romantic and nostalgic Irish heart.

! Jack B Yeats: Waddington Galleries, 11 Cork St, W1 (0171 437 6611), to 21 Dec.