From the WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project
West London’s Bedford Park, the world’s first garden suburb and now a unique Arts-&-Crafts-style, Queen-Anne-retro conservation area close to Turnham Green Station, is all set to honour its most famous former resident Nobel-Prize-winning poet and dramatist, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939).
The Irish poet, and the unique spirit of the Bohemian/Utopian local community that fostered his genius, will be celebrated by the creation – at the ‘gateway’ to the 19c artist’s colony that is Bedford Park – of the dazzling Yeats-inspired sculpture, Enwrought Light, by leading international artist Conrad Shawcross with, engraved on a wide circular stone base, Yeats’s lines…
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light.
The Yeatses: a London-Irish Family
Born in Dublin in 1865, Yeats’s parents (County Down father and Sligo mother) brought him to London at the age of two and he spent two-thirds of his young life with his “London-Irish” exile/migrant family here, most of it in progressive, communal, multi-cultural, anti-imperial, spiritually-questing Bedford Park. The family remained in Bedford Park until 1902 though Yeats himself left home in 1895 to spend time increasingly in Ireland.
Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, had hoped for success as an artist, along with the many Irish artists, actors, composers and writers who were the toast of 19c London, but limited success meant that, as with many migrant families then and since, the Yeats children were frequently sent to relatives in Dublin or Sligo when times were financially tough.
It was in and around his mother’s home town of Sligo that young Willie Yeats developed a love of Irish landscape, legend and lore. But it was Bedford Park’s artistic ambience, and London’s editors, illustrators, publishers and theatre people, many of them Bedford Park neighbours and friends, who nurtured – in London – Yeats’s Irish gift for poetry and paved the way to his becoming an outstanding figure in English literature, in Britain’s and Ireland’s contemporary poetry and drama, and in world culture, a position recognised by the award of the 1923 Nobel Prize.
Yeats’s most famous poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree was written here in Bedford Park; here he met the (unrequited) love of his life, the revolutionary Maud Gonne; and his first staged play, Land of Heart’s Desire, was written at the instigation of Bedford Park neighbours including George Bernard Shaw’s leading lady, Florence Farr. That play in turn led to his co-founding of Dublin’s world-famous Abbey Theatre, Europe’s first publicly-subsidised national theatre. Yet the only Nobel-Prize-winning poet brought up in England has had, until now, no monument anywhere in Britain!
That omission was something Bedford Park residents (led by Irish poet Cahal Dallat who has lectured internationally on Yeats’s London life and leads regular local literary walks) set about putting right, by creating an arts/educational charity, The WB Yeats Bedford Park Project, and finding, in Conrad Shawcross, not merely a young London artist – the youngest Royal Academician in fact – to celebrate Yeats as a ‘young Londoner’, but someone whose public artworks, in both everyday and heritage settings, are at the intersection of physics and metaphysics, and fuse arts and science disciplines in the way Yeats sought to do in his search for ‘Unity of Being’.
Evolution of light…
On visits to Bedford Park – built by Dubliner Jonathan Carr as a green, rural oasis in Victorian London, and built, as was much of London, by Irish builders – Shawcross was struck by the Arts-&-Crafts Movement’s desire to bring beauty into everyday life – not just a country/town combination and a work/life balance but a work/life/art balance – and he focused increasingly on Yeats’s poem He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven with its aspiration towards beauty, even if the poet has ‘only his dreams’.
‘At the project’s 2018 launch at London’s Irish Embassy in Grosvenor Place’, Shawcross says, ‘it was a reading of that particular poem by the incredible Ciarán Hinds that drew my attention to the phrase ‘enwrought with golden and silver light’… The rich physical description of material and the sense of time through evolution of light were really potent images for me, and led directly to the proposed work, which is not only ‘enwrought with’, or made from, ‘golden and silver light’, but also, although static, will be transformed throughout the day and night, through seasons, by ever-changing weather, and by the arcing position of sun and moon in ‘the heavens’.
A range of ordinary Londoners…
Since launching a crowdfunding appeal to raise £134,000 for the artwork and installation, the project committee have been struck by the range of supporters: London Borough of Hounslow (£35,000) for whom the project’s aims, inspiring local young people, recognising migrant families’ contribution to London life and promoting community cohesion through shared pride in cultural heritage, are central to their Thriving Communities vision, London’s Royal Academy of Arts, with a £25,000 award for Shawcross’s design, The Josephine Hart Poetry Foundation (novelist and playwright Josephine Hart, who died in 2011, created The Poetry Hour which still frequently features Yeats), poet Anne-Marie Fyfe who organises regular Coffee-House Poetry and Bedford Park Festival poetry events, and London’s Irish Embassy who welcome Bedford Park’s recognition of the neighbourhood’s own London-Irish protégé who became Ireland’s leading poet and a world-famous writer, and recognise the project’s soft-power diplomacy reinforcing the long-standing artistic connections and mutually beneficial cultural exchange/intertwining that predates the high-visibility lack of mutual understanding that Brexit’s brought about.
Supporters of the project include names as diverse as Rowan Williams, poet and former archbishop, Marie Heaney, Bob Geldof, Fergal Keane, Jimmy Page, Jeremy Vine, Yeatsians and academics Roy Foster, Martin Enright, Ron Schuchard and Marina Warner, poets Tom Paulin, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Gerald Dawe, Joan McBreen, from the world of theatre, Ciarán Hinds, Shevaun Wilder, Kevin McNally and Phyllis Logan, and local Bedford Park activists including Torin Douglas and Fr. Kevin Morris, as well as Yeats Societies around the world.
‘What’s more striking about the backers’, Dallat says, ‘than the mix of poets, actors, painters, conservationists, Yeatsians and Irish-Studies academics, is the range of ordinary Londoners, and people of Irish or Irish-in-Britain heritage. who want to acknowledge Ireland’s contribution to a shared British/Irish culture. Backers from Ireland, too, who recognise London’s historical value as economic resource, opportunity and challenge, and who recognise that living in London is a shared Irish diaspora experience that’s central to, and inseparable from, modern Ireland’s sense of self.’
Over 300 backers have pledged over £124,000 of the £134,000 target in three months, with just 2 weeks left to the 20th July crowdfunding deadline.
(c) Cahal Dallat