The Yeats Family: John Butler, William Butler, Lilly, Elizabeth Corbet, Jack B. Drawings by Jack Coughlin, 1999

 

 

The Maggs catalogue of 2013: cover and pages 2-3

When my aunt, Katherine Haynes Gatch, a professor emeritus of English at Hunter College, died in 1986, she left to my custody the collection of books by William Butler Yeats that had belonged to her colleague, the Yeats scholar Marion W. Witt, who had died in 1978. I expanded the scope of the collection to include works by the painter and patriarch, John Butler Yeats, and his four children: William Butler, Susan Mary (Lilly), Elizabeth Corbet (Lolly), and Jack B. After it had grown to about a thousand items and as we were on the verge of moving to smaller quarters that would not accommodate a large library, I consigned the collection to Maggs Bros Ltd, in London for sale.

The two Hunter professors who started in the collection had shared residences in New York and (after their retirement) at Woodbridge, Connecticut, since about 1930. Katie's instruction in a letter to her executors was that I should be the custodian and either place the collection in an academic library that would keep the materials together or keep and develop it myself.

 

The collection as it was housed in our apartment
from 1997 to 2012

I had long admired the poetry of William Butler Yeats, to which Marion Witt had introduced me when I was an undergraduate at Haverford College. She sent me an offprint of an article on "An Irish Airman Foresees his Death," and I imprudently (and impudently) responded that I could not understand the learned article. The next time I was in New York, I was taught the poem, with all its allusions to members of the Yeats circle and the literary tradition—a formative learning experience. When I was casting about for a play to produce as a reading at college, Marion and Katie happily steered me to The Words upon the Window Pane, a one-act play by Yeats about Jonathan Swift. As a graduation gift in 1953, Marion presented me with a (duplicate) copy of the autobiographical Dramatis Personæ (1935), which I had treasured ever since. It was, of course, printed by Yeats's sister Lolly (Elizabeth Corbet Yeats) at the Cuala Press, which produced the first printings of most of his poetry. When Marion died, there was no public service, but Katie, my brother Tom and I assembled at the crematorium and read a number of Yeats's poems.

I knew that Marion Witt's collection as it stood—a scholar's resource rather than a collector's treasure—was not extensive or valuable enough to appeal to a rare-books library as a distinct collection. Having been left resources that might be used to develop the collection, I decided to keep it. With the encouragement of Ann Saddlemyer and Colin Smythe and such bookdealers as Ed Maggs and Anthony Rota in London and W.A.N. Figgis in Dublin, I began to develop the collection. Having been lured during a first buying expedition in London and Dublin to acquire some of the printed works of W. B. Yeats's brother, the great Irish painter and printmaker Jack B. Yeats, I soon redefined the scope of the collection as encompassing the printed works (thus saving myself from unprinted temptations beyond my purse) of two extraordinarily creative and important generations of the Yeats family. Among other things, this justified acquiring a complete run of Lolly's Cuala Press publications, a drawing by Jack to illustrate the adaptation of his original work to prints and books by Cuala, and a bookbinding and a sample of needlework from the sisters' Cuala Industries. Work on the art of the Yeatses has been a satisfying avocation and diversion for a medievalist.

One particularly gratifying outcome of my work on this collection was the opportunity to present a member's exhibition in 2000 of works by the five Yeatses from the seminal period 1890-1910 at the Grolier Club in New York: "The Yeats Family and the Book Circa 1900." The catalogue of the exhibition, designed by Jerry Kelly and limited to two hundred and fifty copies, was modeled after the distinctive and unvarying style of the Cuala Press. (New York: Grolier Club, 2000. In print: available at Oak Knoll Books [http://www.oakknoll.com/]).

In December 2012, Maggs Bros Ltd published an elegant illustrated catalogue of the collection: A Little Dust: The Gatch Collection of Yeats, with illustrations and descriptions of a number of the more important holdings and a checklist of the entire collection. Maggs are now offering the collection for sale; we hope it can be sold en bloc and kept together. The handsome catalogue memorializes an avocation that has been a great pleasure to me for several decades and eases the pang of separation.