Jack B Yeats’s The Liffey Swim (1923)
This piece appears in Lines of Vision published by Thames and Hudson
Dublin in the early 1970s was a colourful place, in the literal sense that it was full of colour – and dizzingly, almost blindingly, so. Avocado green, harvest gold, sunshine yellow, rust, sandstone, purple, orange. Colour was everywhere, in décor, carpets, fabrics, fashion, appliances, cars, in John Hinde postards, in the Dandelion Market, in the Celtic artwork of Jim Fitzpatrick. And it had come to TV as well. I remember going into a neighbour’s house – the first people on the road to get a colour TV – and it was like that moment when Dorothy opens the door of her dreary monochrome house in Kansas and steps gingerly out into the vibrant Technicolor Land of Oz. In this case, it was onto some lurid alien planet, with Captain Kirk and Mr Spock resplendent, respectively, in their chartreuse and azure tunics. It was a weird experience. Because it wasn’t as if the world outside was in black and white. Reality was in colour, and, as far as my limited understanding went, it always had been.
But until a few years earlier, the visual depiction of imagined worlds – apart, perhaps, from those in paintings and in some comics – had indeed, for the most part, been in black and white. Big strides were made with Technicolor in the 1950s, sure – look at Cecil B DeMille’s Egypt or John Ford’s Monument Valley – but it wasn’t just a question of the process. The culture was bursting open, minds were expanding (nudged along by LSD), and it was during the next decade that things really began to change. In the transition from the album cover art of Revolver to that of Sgt Pepper’s we had another Dorothy moment.
Colour was here to stay.
By the 70s, however, we were saturated in the stuff, and a new fault line had been drawn. Colour was the present, black and white was the past. And from that very perspective, when I turned and looked back – in time, on history – it was true: the world really did seem to be in black and white. Vietnam and Kennedy were, World War II in its entirety was, the Wall Street Crash and the roaring twenties were.
And Dublin city most certainly was.
There were splashes of colour associated with other cities, London, Paris, New York – these glimpsed chiefly in paintings or illustrations – but Dublin, to my mind, was resolutely monochrome, dull, dreary and stilted.
Black and white.
The image I had of the Dublin that existed before my own time came from photographs and newsreels. My parents, when I was a teenager in the 70s, existed in colour – clearly (as did their clothes, and the Axminster carpet in our living room, and the Ford Cortina outside in the driveway). But when they were younger, getting married on a windy day in Clontarf in 1953, say, or waiting outside the Metropole, my parents – preposterously thin and gawpy – existed unambiguously in black and white. When I go further back, leap-frogging from the Emergency over the virtually non-existant 1930s, to the busy, turbulent, violent 1920s everything is in black and white, sometimes sharply-defined, sometimes blurry, a place and a time where all the men – be they rebels, priests or politicians – are wearing hats. People are uncomfortable in front of cameras, too, alienated, either posing too formally or gazing at it with suspicion. Then there are the familiar locations – street corners, buildings, monuments – but these are either deserted or half-demolished. Increasingly, this version of Dublin is defined by the Civil War – the bombardment of the Four Courts, a mass meeting in O’Connell Street, jerky footage of purposeful, uniformed men striding about the place with guns.
Beyond the photographs and newsreels, too, my impression was of an anaemic, spiritless place. Although Joyce’s Dublin was from a slightly earlier time, the effect of his portraiture lingered.
The city was a centre of paralysis.
Of scrupulous meanness.
Agenbite of inwit.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I first came across the work of Jack B Yeats. It wasn’t in the National Gallery, either. It was on the cover of a 1971 Penguin paperback edition of At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien – a writer whose Dublin has ever since been inextricably linked in my mind with Yeats’s.
In a way they both did the same thing. They animated a Dublin I had never known, by infusing the city with oxygen – O’Brien’s the oxygen of anarchic humour, and Yeats’s the oxygen of riotous colour. “The Bus by the River” intrigued me, but it wasn’t until I saw “The Liffey Swim” in the Gallery that the full impact of this hit me. Here was a vibrant, living and colourful Dublin, a city of real people who were more than just flitting figures in the background, more than just extras in a historical tableau. My grandparents were in their midtwenties at that time, living in the city – and they could easily have been in attendance at one of the Liffey Swims, huddled along the quays there, peering in at the swimmers with their fellow Dubliners.
Yeats’s early career as an illustrator and comic-strip artist, as well as the time he spent in the bustling urban centres of London, Manchester and New York, no doubt informed his later choices as an artist, and fed his interest in public events and the public space. In a series of paintings he did in the 1920s, among them “A Full Tram”, “Dublin Newsboys”, “In the Tram”, “Lingering Sun, O’Connell Bridge”, he depicts the dynamism and colour of the modern city in a way which – for Ireland at that time, at least – was unique.
For me “The Liffey Swim” on the walls of the National Gallery will always be a door I can push open to that time and to that world.