Art Unwrapped 2023

Art Unwrapped 2023

Art Unwrapped 2023 is our sixth annual  ‘gift to the city’ exhibition aiming to bring to the widest possible public, rarely seen paintings from museum and private collections. This is your opportunity to have a free guided interpretive tour of a renowned artwork by Fine Art Students of Ulster University in an intimate gallery location on the new Ulster University Belfast campus.

Open from 7 December 2023 - 8 January 2024

Ulster University,
Belfast Campus,
Art Gallery,
2-24 York Street,
BT15 1AP

Reserve your place

In Partnership With

Belfast City Council logo
National Museums NI

Supported By

Irish News Logo
Newry & mourne logo

The Painting

The chosen painting is presented as a “gift to the city” as well as the rest of Northern Ireland during the festive season.  By celebrating one painting each year, the project gives residents and visitors the chance to immerse themselves in that work of art and explore it in detail.

The painting chosen for Art Unwrapped 2023 will be JB Yeats’ painting “On Through the Silent Lands” of 1951.

About the Artist

Jack Butler Yeats (1871–1957)

(b London, 29 Aug. 1871; d Dublin, 28 Mar. 1957). The best-known Irish painter of the 20th century, son of John Butler Yeats (1839–1922), a barrister who became a successful portrait painter, and brother of the poet William Butler Yeats. Initially he worked mainly as an illustrator and did not regularly paint in oils until about 1905.

His subjects included Celtic myth and everyday Irish life, through which he contributed to the upsurge of nationalist feeling in the arts that accompanied the movement for Irish independence. His early paintings were influenced by French Impressionism, but he then developed a more personal Expressionistic style characterized by vivid colour and extremely loose brushwork (there is some similarity to the work of Kokoschka, who became a great friend in the last decade of Yeats's life).

Yeats was a writer as well as a painter—the author of several plays, novels, and volumes of poetry, as well as Life in the West of Ireland (1912) and Sligo (1930).

Watch Student Presentations

Eva Blakely-Hewitt

Niamh Hughes

Watch the Videos

Ben Cole

Jemma Clydesdale

Watch the Videos

Louise Greig

Student Presentations

Jemma Clydesdale

“J.B. Yeats: A Technical Viewpoint”

Kirsty Crumley

“Jack Butler Yeats: A Family Story”

Lucy Elder

"Death/ End of Life as a Theme in ‘On Through The Silent Lands’ "

Madison Agnew

“Yeats: The Life and Work of a Great Painter”

Michelle Bingham

“A Leap of Faith”

Research will cover Yeats’ family background, the social and geographical context in which Yeats produced his work.  Finally, the metaphysical connotations of the piece.

Niamh Hughes

“Poetry and Painting: J. B. Yeats”

I am hoping to focus on Yeats’ relationship with poetry and the role it played in his paintings, especially with his family and as his paintings have been described to evoke feelings in a similar way to poetry and drama.

Louise Greig

“Accepting Death: The Existentialism of Jack B. Yeats’ later work”

Reading material – Melanie A Dunne, ‘This grand conversation: do the late works of Jack B Yeats reveal an existential artist?’

Eva Blakely-Hewitt

“How Jack B. Yeats' relationships with his family, particularly his brother W.B. Yeats, influenced his work”

Gabriele Uzkurnyte

“Information that becomes poetic - An insight into the existential work of Jack B Yeats”

Niamh McGowan

“The Yeats creative dynasty; from Ireland's greatest poet, to the most celebrated artist, to diligent, innovative craftworkers and designers”

Bishop Young

"Yeats: Throughout the Years"

Esther Barfoot

“Jack Butler Yeats - Life, Family and Work”

Sara Monteiro

''The Life Feats of Jack B. Yeats''

His exhibition openings, where he always wore a rose in his buttonhole and the meaning behind it.

That he used to use a white pipe cleaner and put it on the doorknob of his studio door to warn his wife that he was working and why. And that he was the first Irish painter to win a medal at the Olympic games.

Student Presentation Scripts

  • Gabriele Uzkurnyte

    Information that becomes poetic- an insight into the Existential work of Jack B Yeats

    The family name Yeats, derived from the old English word ‘geat’ and by extension ‘gatekeeper’, is poetic in the sense of its connection to nature and in forming a link to the primordial feelings of J.B. Yeats’s paintings. This is perhaps best typified by ‘On Through the Silent Lands’.

    This connection to nature and the landscape can be traced through all of the Yeats’s artistic endeavors, of which perhaps the most noted are by Jack B. Yeats and his brother, the poet William B. Yeats. Both can certainly be said to be major figures who formed a significant impact on Ireland’s culture.

    Moreover, even if we center the discourse primarily around ideas of Existentialism in ‘On Through the Silent Lands’, a similarity of approach between the Yeats’s, extended to their father John Butler Yeats, can be seen. For instance, in an 1890 portrait of his son Jack, John B. Yeats displays an immediate approach, with a lighter sense of ‘being’ and a transient quality. This approach was taken further by Jack B. Yeats in his own work, a continuation  his father's later paintings and through which Jack also happens to greatly parallel a shared reverence of rebellious mind, and philosophical discourse on the subject of introspection.

    Perhaps greatly influenced by the artist’s dear friend Samuel Beckett, and with interventions into Heideggerian philosophy of Existentialism, to be an existentialist for Yeats meant the seeking of meaningful truth through ‘being’ (or ‘Dasein’, a German word for human being t/here). This concept of Being, paving a way for immediacy to take hold, to always be in flux, as to be ever changing and unconfined by rationality, challenged linear approaches so that the inner seeking of the authentic self may reveal a truth sought after.

    For a painter in the 1950’s, Existentialism was to paint life as a portrayal of authenticity. ‘On Through the Silent Lands’, which was one of the artist’s late paintings, sees a shift in sensibility that changed from objectivity in his early illustrative work, to expressing the inner brooding emotions and the experience of life, ultimately becoming a subject for painting from memory.

    J.B. Yeats later professed, ‘No-one creates...The artist assembles memories.’ This quote seems to be a dogmatic paraphrase of Edgar Degas’ words, despite his claim to have not been acquainted with the artist. Drawing on the subject of memory,  ‘On Through the Silent Lands’ depicts the artist himself, then at the age of 80 years, through a recollection of memories, a pledge to his living self and acceptance of death and his finite life span. He looks into the distance; a quieting of the mind, this painting exhibits the ‘organic inorganic’ as Beckett’s noted description of the artist’s work proposed. There are undertones of passing and death, an immediate revelation which despite the permeating glow of the hill in the distant horizon, suggests that there is life within the representation of death and death within life.

    Yeats later remarked, “About this memory business. Buy or steal your memories instead of stuffing yourself with your own.” If seeking truth in its most authentic form was indeed paramount to Yeats, then it becomes less to do with historical indulgence in depicting a truthful image of the Irish landscape and culture. This is not to deny that there is an influence of the painting ‘collecting’ memory as a passive activity, but more importantly there is a relation to the metaphysical and philosophical thinking which yielded the work, and in turn informed a new ethos of Ireland. ‘On Through the Silent Lands’ is the physical manifestation of the amalgam of Dasein’s experience through clarity.

  • Lucy Elder

    Death/End of life as a theme in On Through The Silent Lands

    In the year 1951, J.B Yeats created one of his very last paintings, “On through the Silent Lands”.  He had lived a long life, dying at the age of 85. It’s been speculated that this painting represented his contentment with the inevitable and nearing end of his life. Yeats illustrates an older gentleman strolling into a colourful and beautiful landscape, with a lake and towering mountains, the dominant colour in this oil painting being blue. It could be read that Yeats is illustrating his own passing into the afterlife, and the peace that he feels with this idea. There appears to be a small bridge across the lake, leading to the other part of the land, which represents his passage from life into death.

    He uses oil paint very liberally in this piece, tying into this idea of freedom and of being set free, of inner peace. The way he places paint on the canvas seems very intuitive and loose, along with the colour selections, mostly being green and blue.. These are very tranquil colours. He also uses a bit of yellow and a minimal amount of red.  it seems as if he put paint straight onto the canvas out of the tube, especially with the yellow paint which is often applied in the grass. White, blue and green are often thought of as the most peaceful colours in the colour spectrum, and it seems very intentional that Yeats used light and dark blues along with green to create this atmosphere of sanctuary and haven.

    To me, I feel that the mountains and the lake are the most obvious part of this work. I find the mountains to be an important feature in this work as mountains can symbolise freedom and sacredness, further playing into this idea of heaven and the afterlife where Yeats can finally rest and be free.The image of a lake is often symbolic of transition between life and death, as well as a mirror for self contemplation and revelation, due to its reflective nature.

  • Madison Agnew

    Yeats: The Life and Work of a Renowned Painter

    Jack Butler Yeats was an experimental and revered artist, born in London in 1871 and died in Ireland in 1957. Yeats is a painter who is well known for his vibrant use of colour in his works and his thick, heavy brushstrokes. Yeats won an Olympic silver medal for his work ‘The Liffey Swim’ in 1924. His family were all well known in the artistic world at the time; his brother William Bulter Yeats was a famous poet; his father Jack Butler Yeats was a famous portrait painter and his two sisters who were well known by the named of Lily and Lolly were heavily involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement at the time.

    Yeats spent much of his early life moving between London and Ireland due to his father’s work circumstances. Historically though, we would consider him to be an Irish artist born and bred which is not the case, although he did spend a great portion of his life in Ireland.

    Yeats was an artist that attended multiple very good art colleges- the South Kensington School of Art and the Chiswick School of Art. During his studies Yeats met his wife Mary Cottenham White. They married and lived together for a time in Devon. Following this, Yeats began his artistic career during the 1890’s where he started out as an illustrator rather than a painter- only switching to paint in his later years. Yeats’ illustrative work heavily juxtaposed his painting works which we are commonly more familiar with. His illustrations were largely dark- black and white and he also worked for companies and publishers rather than painting for himself. A significant change in his life- his move back to Ireland with Mary, is thought to have spurred this drastic change to his oil painting work which Yeats is renowned for.

    Samuel Beckett, a long-time friend of Yeats said, “Yeats is with the great of our time... because he brings light, as only the great dare to bring light, to the issueless predicament of existence.” I feel like this both does and doesn’t embody the works of Yeats. As he began oil painting, he largely painted landscapes and figurative works from his childhood time in Sligo. However, during his more primitive and older years he is said to have painted for the Irish cause although he didn’t actively make any political remarks or uprises. Yeats said, “a painter must be part of the land and of the life he paints,” Therefore signifying his unity with the place he was raised.

    Fintan O’Toole for the Irish Times said of Yeats’ brother, “William and his collaborators devised an Irishness that was everything England was not: rural instead of urban, peasant instead of industrial, ancient instead of modern, romantic instead of utilitarian. Jack’s images...largely cohere with this vision. His nationalist contemporaries liked to imagine Yeats as a “Gaelic” or “Celtic” artist.” I feel like this is true of Yeats’ work especially his rural paintings of the Irish countryside.

    What I love about Yeats’ paintings from his later years is the looseness of his brushstrokes and the fluidity of his art; how it is both figurative and evokes a large sense of emotion, especially to those with Irish heritage. Most of his works use scenery, surroundings and often a figure to break up this idea. His paintings also grew as he grew older, he began to use larger canvases for his works. John Berger said of Yeats that he was a "great painter" with a "sense of the future, an awareness of the possibility of a world other than the one we know.”

  • Michelle Bingham

    Reflective essay

    I will examine the Yeats family background, the social and geographical context in which Jack Yeats produced his work and the metaphysical connotations of the painting ‘On Through the Silent Lands’ produced by Jack B Yeats.

    Jack B Yeats was one of four siblings who recognised the need for the Celtic art revival during the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century. This traversed literature, the arts and social practices to represent Irish traditions and celebrate people as they truly were and not the caricatures associated with British opinions.

    John married Susan and they had four children. He left Ireland and enrolled in a private art school as he was determined to become a society portrait painter. He moved the whole family to London and this was where Robert and Jack were born.

    They had to fend for themselves from a young age and in the latter years they had to be the parents’ providers, as their father John failed to make a living as a painter. No one within this unit had a stable life. Susan relied heavily on her parents for physical and financial support.

    Susan was terribly homesick and would commonly take the children to Sligo for extended periods. I believe that the Yeats children were heavily influenced by constantly moving from one house to another and traveling between Ireland and England. They had the slow spiritual life in rural Ireland and the fast-paced art world in London. In Sligo they were to learn through servants about folk legends, myths and the magic. Whereas in London they moved in artistic groups.

    During this era there was an upsurge in Irish nationalism which led to the Celtic revival trend which focused on contemporary Irish life and mythology. As their father was

    absent, they would have been influenced by William (grandfather) who was a former seaman. His grandfather deepened their wisdom of the country life, which would have enriched their imaginations and poetic fantasies.

    ‘On Through the Silent Lands’ is Jack B Yeats’s final act. The figure in the painting is heavily symbolic of his own journey through life and embarking on his ultimate journey. As a spectator I was drawn to what was capturing his attention and glimpsed a salmon. It is vital to pay close attention to any symbols, as he had such a strong belief in culture and Irish heritage. A salmon energetically equals his own life. This incredible creature is surrounded by numerous myths and cultures. The Celts connect it to power, wisdom and knowledge of the future. The great Irish hero Cúchulainn would bound into action and mighty ‘salmon leap’ in battle.

    The word salmon arises from the Latin salire – to leap. Salmon travel thousands of miles before returning to their birthplace to spawn and they die soon after. The salmon symbolises life and death. It gives it’s life for future generations and dies after spawning so that other life may thrive. This image has the breath and spirit of the great and the qualities of the land in legend and folk life. He demonstrates the love of this land, his true resting place. Native Americans believe the salmon spirit animal is a fish that swims successfully upstream and as such is symbolic of achieving success in the face of life’s struggles and hardships.

    Jack B. Yeats is quietly connecting with his loved ones and honouring his roots. Lough Gill is a freshwater lake, in Irish its Loch Gile; white lake. This is where the salmon can be found and it has outstanding natural beauty. William was also inspired by this lough, as it provided the background for ‘The Lake of Innisfree’.

    W.B. Yeats also referenced to salmon in, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Is he referencing his link to his Greek ancestry? He speaks of embarking on a journey as the place he

    resides in is useless to the old—only the youthful. He does travel to Byzantium, to eternity, where age is not an issue, and he will be able to go beyond.

    Within this, family names mattered immensely. Lily and Lollie originally named their enterprise ‘Dun Emer’, referring to Irish hero Cúchulainn’s wife, who was renowned for her craft and needlework. It then evolved into ‘Cuala’ an area south of the River Liffey which includes the Wicklow mountains. Water is another theme that binds the Yeats siblings, as their maternal side were seafolk. John believed they were connect to Pollux the son of Zeus, whose main role was to save those in trouble at sea or risk in war.

    These siblings identified with the ordinary people of Ireland and their simple life. The Irish people were worthy of a celebration of life. Downtrodden, displaced by famine and colonialism, yet imbued with a poetic fighting spirit, the Irish are perpetual underdogs and connected to the magic of folklore and mythology. What’s not to celebrate?

  • Niamh Hughes

    Poetry and Painting: Jack Butler Yeats.

    J. B Yeats was raised in a family of creatives, most notably his brother William Butler Yeats, a widely recognised literary great in Ireland. When we consider this, it comes as no surprise that Jack Butler Yeats’ work is so closely linked to poetry, both in the nature of his paintings and the mood they create, and in the titles and literacy which surround them.

    Jack Butler Yeats was born in London; the son of Irish portrait artist John Butler Yeats. Beyond the creative talents of his older brother and father, his sisters Lily and Elizabeth Yeats were artists in their own right. Much of Yeats’ childhood was spent in County Sligo, creating a familiarity with the rural Irish landscape and the culture and folklore which surrounds it, before returning to London to attend Chiswick School of Art with his two sisters, beginning his career as an illustrator. His illustrations would sometimes come in the form of comic strips, or story illustrations, making it unsurprising that Yeats would grow to possess such a talent in storytelling through painting. However, it was not until the 1900s where Yeats would stray from his illustrative works, initially steering towards a French Impressionistic style before developing into more expressionistic paintings. It was then that we could begin to explore the poetic and emotive nature of Yeats’ paintings.

    It was at this time in his life that Yeats’ paintings became much more dream-like yet remaining figurative in a strangely recognisable way. Yeats scholar Hilary Pyle observed this development in J.B. Yeats’ work to be similar to his brother, W. B. Yeats; a development in which both were more open to exploring their own thoughts and feelings in the works they created.

    The mood created by his paintings and the manner in which he conveyed his emotions through the medium of paint tells the story of an artist surrounded by literary talent and inspiration; both in his family and his friends. Jack Butler Yeats would become friends with Samuel Beckett, a renowned Irish novelist and poet, credited with being one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, in the 1930s, who would go on to commend Yeats’ paintings for his depiction of the relationship between humans and the land which surrounds them, calling the settings for Yeats’ paintings 'almost as inhumanly organic as a stage set.’ Yeats has been credited for his ability to achieve a sense of suggested nature in his paintings, as well as capturing the essence of loneliness in a manner similar to Samuel Beckett himself, which speaks volumes of his captivating storytelling talents as a painter.

    Similarly to an author or poet titling a book, Yeats was careful when choosing titles for his paintings. He would often borrow from literary texts to give a greater sense of the subject matter and the feelings surrounding it in his works. On Through the Silent Lands is no exception to this. The 1951 painting was created in the last stage of Yeats’ life and is thought to deal with the idea of passing on, remembering the life he had lived, and his acceptance of this stage in his life. The title of the painting is thought to have come from the Christina Rossetti poem ‘Remember,’ from the lines “Remember me when I am gone away, Gone far away into the silent land,” which if true, is a true demonstration of Yeats’ ability to marry the literary with his painterly works, giving the viewer a greater context to his feelings than what we could read from a brush stroke.

  • Sara Monteiro

    “The Life Feats of Jack B. Yeats”

    Jack Butler Yeats is probably the most influential Irish painter of the twentieth century.

    He loved the local characters. The sailors, travellers, tramps, jockeys, actors, and circus performers.

    According to my research on Jack B. Yeats, I dare say he was a character himself. An emotive and intuitive painter, with a strong personality. An artist with his own unique habits.

    I would like to share some of the most interesting things that I came across.

    No one could see him paint. Not even his family or friends. He would not discuss his technique as well.

    He required peace, quiet, and loneliness when he was working in his studio from the start of a piece, until finishing it.

    Not even his wife dared to disturb him. He used to take a white pipe-cleaner and bend it into a circle and put it on the knob of his studio door to warn her that he was painting.

    He kept his paintings closed in his studio for six months. When he considered the paintings finished, he would draw a little seagull beside the entry to show that his work was ready to go and be seen.

    Yeats disliked those who would over-analyse his work. Maybe that was the reason to keep them a mystery until he finished a painting.

    He always wore a rose in his buttonhole at his exhibition openings, not as a sentimental gesture but as an indication of a particular poetic notion. The symbolism of the rose was that the viewer's interpretation was only one of many and the true meaning of his paintings was his own secret.

    Jack B. Yeats was not only a painter but also a writer and playwright. He wrote and illustrated several books, including six novels, poetry, short stories and plays. Drawings for journals, magazines and books, posters and theatrical production formed the basis of his early career.

    The Artist participated in two Olympic competitions, in the painting category. Los Angeles in 1932, and Paris in 1924. He won the first Olympic medal for the Irish free state.

    He was the first Irish artist to sell a piece for more than £1 million.

    Jack B Yeats had a secret in his life according to an article from the Irish times written by Fintan O'Toole.

    It is a secret he kept hidden from the public as he had another identity. Jack B Yeats was also “W Bird” – a truth that the painter himself continued to deny up to his death, in 1957.

    “W Bird” was an important and assiduously cartoonist for Punch magazine. “W Bird” (Yeats) did more than 500 cartoons for Punch between 1910 and 1948.

    And why was this a secret? Why did Yeats use the pseudonym "W. Bird" for his cartoon contributions to Punch magazine?

    Punch magazine was known for Jhon Tenniel’s racist cartoons in which the Irish are portrayed as apelike and heartless. Given this context, it was understandable why he kept his commitment with Punch a secret.

    This secret life led to questions about why he concealed it. Is the answer related to the controversial nature of Punch and considerations about his public image? Could this be related to financial reasons?

    Fintan O'Toole considers Jack Yeats's role in shaping the Irish identity, comparing it with Englishness. While some of his works aligned with an idealized version of Irishness, his W Bird cartoons tackled "English" subjects. Topical, irreverent, and insightful content such as new technologies, female fashion, votes for women - he dissected social pretensions.

    Discovering this hidden side of Jack Yeats provides a broader perspective on his creative identity, emphasizing that artists not only produce art but also construct public images.

    Jack B. Yeats as W. Bird could be irreverent and absurd. Yeats's contributions to Punch have received limited scholarly attention and suggests that these cartoons have a role in understanding his development as a painter. While some may think that his work as W. Bird provided him with a source of income while establishing himself as an oil painter and allowed him to express his sense of triviality.

    I think his cartoonist work in Punch should be further studied because it may have impacted and shaped his career.