Dundrum, Co Dublin & the Sisters of W.B. Yeats

Dundrum is now a sprawling suburb in south Co Dublin but a hundred years ago, it was a small sleepy village with a railway station on the little used spur line from Harcourt Street (Dublin) to Shankill.  Not many people think of it as an industrial hub but, for many years, it was a centre of innovation, design and a ‘style’ known as the Arts & Crafts movement – from the turn of the 19th C and in the early days of the then newly formed Irish Free State.

This blog post is really about postcards – in particular, how collecting vintage postcards opens a window into local (and sometimes) history.  This postcard, dating from the early 1900’s illustrates a little known chapter in the local history of Dundrum, Co Dublin.

  • It shows the interior of the famous Dun Emer Guild studios and was probably published for the purposes of advertising their goods at the various trade shows and exhibitions they attended,
  • It could also have been used for ‘short’ correspondences from their shop in Clare Street, Dublin
Vintage picture postcard - postally unused, of great historical interest, features an image of women working at the Dun Emer Industries Ltd, Dundrum Co. in Dublin Ireland. Two are identified: the sisters Lily and Elizabeth C. Yeats (siblings of William Butler Yeats), both of whom were very much involved in the Arts & Crafts movement

Vintage picture postcard – postally unused, of great historical interest, features an image of women working at the Dun Emer Industries Ltd, Dundrum Co. Dublin.  Two of the women in the photo are identified: the sisters Lily and Elizabeth C. Yeats (siblings of William Butler Yeats), both of whom were very much involved in the Arts & Crafts movement in London and in Dublin, Ireland.

Lily Yeats

  • Susan Mary “Lily” Yeats (25 August 1866 – 5 January 1949) was an embroiderer associated with the Celtic Revival.
  • Born in Co Sligo, she was the daughter of John Butler Yeats and the sister of W.B, Jack and Elizabeth Yeats.
  • The Yeats family settled in Bedford Park, London, in 1888, and the family often visited the founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement, William Morris, at his home in nearby Kelmscott House. Money was tight for the Yeats family, and when Lily was offered an opportunity to learn embroidery in the style propounded by Morris, she eagerly took up the position.  This style would later become known as Art Needlework.
    • She became involved in the Arts and Crafts movement in London, working as assistant to May Morris who ran the embroidery section of Morris & Co
    • By March 1889 Lily was training embroideresses for the firm
  • In 1895, Lily caught typhoid fever while in France, and with erratic health and the death of her mother in 1900, Lily and her sister Elizabeth returned to Ireland with their friend Evelyn Gleeson.
  • In 1902 the three founded a craft studio near Dublin which they named Dun Emer (the Fort of Emer) after Emer, the wife of Irish legendary hero Cuchullain.
  • Dun Emer became a focus of the burgeoning Irish Arts & Crafts Movement, focusing on embroidery, printing, and rug and tapestry-making.
    • They recruited young local women to the enterprise, teaching them painting, drawing, cooking, sewing, and the Irish language in addition to the Guild’s core crafts.
  • Lily Yeats ran the embroidery department, which created textiles for church decoration and domestic use.

In 1904, the operation was reorganized into two parts, the Dun Emer Guild run by Gleeson and Dun Emer Industries under the direction of the Yeats sisters, and in 1908 the groups separated completely. Gleeson retained the Dun Emer name, and the Yeats sisters established Cuala Industries at nearby Churchtown, which ran a small press, the Cuala Press, and an embroidery workshop.

  • William Butler Yeats’s wife George (Bertha Georgina), helped Lily run the embroidery arm of the studio which produced clothing and linens.

The Yeats sisters lived together through their adult lives, albeit contentiously. In 1923, Lily fell dangerously ill with what was believed to be tuberculosis while on holiday in London, and her brother lodged her in a London nursing home in July, where she remained until the following April.

On her recovery, she returned to Cuala, but the embroidery department was never a resounding success. Lily’s health deteriorated again in 1931 (her ailment had finally been correctly diagnosed as a malformed thyroid in 1929), and the decision was made to dissolve the embroidery branch of Cuala.

At the time, Lily wrote

“I never should have taken up the work after my illness. The eight years have been a very great strain, and each year a small loss, adding up.”

Lily Yeats continued to sell embroidered pictures in the following years.  She died in 1949.

An embroidered panel, by Lily Yeats c 1900 sold by Christies, London (1998) for £1495 from an initial estimate of £700-900

An embroidered panel, by Lily Yeats c 1900 was sold by Christies in London (1998) for £1,495 from an initial estimate of £700-900.  This piece of art would sell for a much higher price if offered today.

Elizabeth Yeats

  • Elizabeth Corbet “Lolly” Yeats (11 March 1868 – 16 January 1940) was born at 23 Fitzroy Road, London
  • She was the daughter of the Irish artist John Butler Yeats and sister of W. B., Jack and “Lily” Yeats.
  • She trained and worked as an art teacher and was a member of William Morris’s circle in London before her family returned to Dublin in 1900
    • In Dublin, she joined Evelyn Gleeson to form the Dun Emer Guild along with Lily, who was an embroiderer.
    • Elizabeth managed the Dun Emer Press from 1902 – located in the house of Evelyn Gleeson.
    • This was set up with the intention of training young women in bookbinding and printing.
    • In 1908, she and her brother William started the Cuala Press, publishing over 70 books including 48 by the poet. Yeats was the first commercial printer in Ireland to work exclusively with hand presses.
  • Elizabeth wrote and created the artwork for “Elementary Brush-Work Studies” (published in 1900), an educational book that teaches young children the technique of painting flowers and plants using her simple method
Elizabeth Corbet (Lolly) Yeats - an illustration from her book

Elizabeth Corbet (Lolly) Yeats – an illustration from her book “Elementary Brushwork Studies”

Evelyn Gleeson

Evelyn Gleeson (1855-1944) was the English born daughter of an Irish doctor from Co. Tipperary. She was a talented artist and had studied in London for some years – principally as a portraitist in the Ludovici Atelier but more significantly as it turned out, for six months under Alexander Miller at South Kensington learning the arts of design. There she showed “great skill in choosing and blending colours” as Miller acknowledged.

  • Miss Gleeson had a certain long-standing medical complaint and felt the need to leave London for the purer air of Ireland.
  • With her great friend and subsequent financial backer Augustine Henry she discussed the possibility of pursuing some form of craftwork in Ireland.
  • By early 1902 the notion of an arts and crafts settlement was developed to the extent that she was in a position to invite two friends (Lily and Lolly Yeats) to join her in a scheme.

Plans were discussed and agreements made and by Autumn 1902 a house called ‘Runnymede’ was found in an ideal spot in Dundrum near Dublin. In the spirit of the times the house was renamed ‘Dun Emer’ meaning Emer’s Fort, in allusion to Emer, the wife of Cuchulainn in the old Irish epic tales, famed for her skill in weaving and embroidery.

Each of the ladies was to be in charge of a particular craft

  • Evelyn Gleeson in charge of tapestry and handtufting of carpets and rugs,
  • Lily Yeats in charge of embroidery and Elizabeth Yeats in charge of printing on a hand press.
  • Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats initially considered furniture but eventually decided on printing.
A carpet, by the Dun Emer Guild c  1920's, sold by Christies of London for £7,050 in 2001.

A carpet, by the Dun Emer Guild c 1920’s, sold by Christies of London for £7,050 in 2001.

The whole enterprise was financed by Evelyn Gleeson’s inheritance, with some help from her brother and from Augustine Henry. The Yeats sisters were salaried assistants yet allowed independence in their own departments.

  • A number of girls were recruited as workers and trainees
    • May Kerley, a niece of Augustine Henry, helped with carpets and rugs.
    • Miss Gleeson’s sister, Constance MacCormack, managed the household
    • Miss Gleeson’s sister-in-law, Katherine MacCormack was one of the carpet designers

The Dun Emer Guild is now best known for its use of native materials and its preference for Celtic designs. It now has an important place in the history of the Irish Revival as well as the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s