Singing, ‘Oh, Had I the wings of a Swallow’
Jack B. Yeats
Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957)
Singing, ‘Oh, Had I the wings of a Swallow’ (1925)
Oil on canvas, (24” x 36”)
The O’Brien Collection
“Painted in 1925, Singing ‘Oh, Had I the wings of a Swallow‘ is among the most important paintings by Jack Yeats to come to market in many years. Painted on a full-size, two-by-three foot canvas, it is one of the earliest major works executed in Jack Yeats’ mature style. 1925 was the year of the extraordinary sea-change in his art, as he forsook his early observationist approach for the more unique expressionist style, which was to prompt critics such as Lord Clark of Saltwood to see him as part of the international Modernist movement.
The picture shows a girl whom Jack had came across on a train out of Dublin: her hands in the pockets of her fur-collared coat, she is singing to the passengers of the carriage, head thrown back and eyes closed in abandon. Her fellow passengers hunch in their seats, listening silently. As she sings, the low evening sun fills the carriage with orange light and glances glowing red upon the girl’s shoulders and the backs of the carriage seats. Writing to Mr. O’Hare, then the owner of the picture in 1955, Jack recalled:
‘Years ago I saw that young woman and heard her sing on the train running through Kildare. She would sing standing up in the carriage, getting I think a rolling sounding loud effect from the roof, collect what she could in a shell and at the first stope of the train at a station, would move swiftly to another compartment. Her song sounded moving’ . (quoted in Hilary Pyle, Op Cit)
Singing, ‘Oh, Had I the wings of a Swallow’ unites several of the key themes and subjects which are central to Jack’s art. Singers are potent and spiritual figures in his work: Jack was an avid collector of the ballad-sheets which were constantly published and circulated, and the singers who hawked them around the country districts never ceased to fascinate him. Trains, too, he loved and in that respect, the present work belongs to a long series of railway-carriage interiors, from pastoral landscapes (Lough Owel from the Train, 1923) to studies of contemplation, (Man in a Train Thinking, 1927, Reverie, 1931, et al).
The composition and complex execution of Singing, ‘Oh, Had I the wings of a Swallow’ is certainly planned--Jack had rehearsed the scene two years previously with Music in the Train, 1923, in which the place of the singing girl is taken by an old fiddler, who stands in the aisle of the carriage playing to the silent passengers. The dramatically receding perspective of the carriage’s roof, and the two seats that resemble scenery flats, for a kind of stage set upon which the girl sings--all the lines of the composition converge upon her face like the beams of spot lights.
This focus is reinforced by the carefully-modulated colour scheme, which again suggests the dramatic lighting of the theater. The main ground of the picture is built up in flurries of short brush strokes, forming a series of harmonies of orange, umber and black, highlit with pure scarlet. Against this back-drop, though, the viewer’s eye is instantly drawn to the singer’s face, pale as milk and rendered in smooth liquid strokes of paint. The contrast is so dramatic that the area around her head seems almost to belong to a separate picture within the larger image, enclosing the girl so that she seems to be singing for herself alone and conscious only of her song.
It is the paintings of 1925 onwards which have led critics to acknowledge the international importance of Jack Yeats. As the works up to this date justify his reputation as the greatest painter of Ireland and its people, the later works are part of the mainstream of European avante-garde art. Of all of these critics, though, it is worth quoting Lord Clark: in the introduction to his 1941 exhibition of Jack’s work at the National Gallery in London, he recognized not only the historical importance of his work, but also the sheer joy and exuberance of his new painting. His writing vividly evokes Singing, ‘Oh, Had I the wings of a Swallow’:
‘light is transformed into colour, for colour is Yeats’s element in which he dives and plashes with the shameless abandon of a porpoise. And colour knows no laws: it is the language of the free, the passionate the intoxicated.”
Postscript: On a rare occasion, Jack Yeats would place himself in the scene being depicted—there he is, intently listening and observing
in the upper right corner of the painting, sporting his typical black fedora hat.
Below is the entire song from whence the title of the painting is derived . It was first made famous by the great tenor, John Mc Cormack.
Little Town in the Ould County Down
John Mc Cormack- (1921)
This is the 78 rpm recording that made this song famous, and from which the title of the
painting is drawn; it must have been widely-and swiftly-distributed (in a pre-internet world) as the Yeats’ painting dates from 1925.
Anne Shelton- (1950s)
Sure if I had the wings of a Swallow
I would travel far over the sea
And a rocky old road
I would follow,
To a span
That is heaven to me…
When the sun goes to rest
Way down in the West
Then I'll build such a nest
In the place I love best….
In that dear little town
In the old County Down
It will linger way down in my heart…
Tho it never was grand,
It is my fairy land
Just a wonderful world set apart…
Oh my island of dreams
You are with me it seems
And I care not for fame or renown…
Like the black sheep of old
I'll come back to the fold
Little town in the old County Down