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Augustus Edwin John

1879 – 1961

William Butler Yeats by Augustus Edwin John

William Butler Yeats   1907

  Original etching and drypoint, signed in pencil.
Signed in pencil.
Ref: Campbell Dodgson 28 iii/iv; Knewstub 108
S 379 x 242 mm; P & I 173 x 125 mm
Original Augustus John etching with drypoint.

Outstanding proof impression in the third state of the plate. This penultimate state is widely regarded as the finest state of the plate – in this state, the work is essentially complete and the drypoint lines are fresh and unblemished. Only the slightest amount of shading was added to the sitter’s coat for the final state but the delicate drypoint burr of the soft copper plate had already lost some of the velvetly richness found in the few impressions printed in this third state.

A truly exceptional signed proof impression of this famous portrait etching. Printed with carefully wiped plate tone in bluish-green toned black ink. From the Albert M. Bender Collection, San Francisco Museum of Art.

Augustus John’s outstanding portrait of the famous Irish poet and dramatist, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), is perhaps the best known of all of Augustus John’s etched works. Only the artist’s great self-portrait, Tête Farouche, may be considered to be equally well known.

When discussing this etching in Great Images of British Printmaking, Raymond Lister states: “John was one of the great portrait painters of his age; he was also one of its most original etchers, and where he combined both arts, as here, the results are extraordinarily successful. In his portrait of Yeats there is an added dimension, for in it he depicted one of the greatest of his literary contemporaries. Yeats’s own description of John Synge’s portrait could be applied to this pensive delineation; ‘a deep grave face’.” (Robin Garton, London, 1978, pp.58-59).

Here, Augustus John has concentrated his intuitive knowledge of the sitter into a highly effective and striking image. The artist’s fresh and vigorous style is typified in this brilliant portrait with its fine balance of controlled cross-hatching, yet with its apparent freedom of handling.

Augustus John became obsessed with creating a perfect etched portrait of Yeats. Working from a picture of his sitter, John etched five different plates of this same image in the year 1907. Each plate differs considerably in its appearance; however, this particular etching, the fifth and final plate, is generally considered to be the finest of these works and was the only one chosen to be published at the time that all five plates were completed (the fourth plate is also now highly regarded, whilst the second and third plates are considered weak; the first plate shows less of the figure and most impressions were printed many years after that plate was etched, being signed with the artist’s later pencil signature of “John” alone – they are correspondingly much cheaper in price).

Inscribed in pencil by Augustus John’s principal dealer, John Knewstub, with his plate number, the title and “Third state. Print 3”. Signed by the artist beneath the image in pencil with his early full signature “Augustus E. John” which is only found on early proofs of John’s printed works. The artist chose to exhibit an impression of this work at the Society of Twelve in 1908.

On cream wove paper, watermarked O.W.P. & A.C.L., with full margins. Mild time tone towards outer edges of sheet, otherwise very fine original condition. Image surface excellent.

Provenance: Albert M. Bender Collection; San Francisco Museum of Art (from 1936 until 1962).