Lily and Lollie Yeats: Sisters with a vision

The overlooked yet significant contributions of Susan and Elizabeth Yeats, known as Lily and Lollie, to the Arts and Crafts movement.

by Celia Donoghue
words celia donoghue

A plaque at 3 Blenheim Road in London’s Chiswick area commemorates the famous Yeats family who lived there from 1888 to 1902 – artist John Butler Yeats and his two sons, the writer William Butler and the painter Jack B. However, there is no mention of the two girls in the family, Susan and Elizabeth, nicknamed Lily and Lollie, who carved out important careers in the Arts and Crafts movement in England and Ireland. At times, their incomes kept the rather precarious family finances afloat. 

History has lumped the two sisters together, and indeed they lived and worked at close quarters for much of their lives. Apparently, though, they didn’t get on at all, being radically different in character – William once described them as ‘the angel and the demon’. 

Historical plaque at 3 Blenheim Road, London, honoring the Yeats family

Susan (‘Lily’; 1866–1949) was quiet, gentle, often in poor health, but a superb prize-winning embroiderer. She worked for the famous textile designer William Morris, a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain. Her work included elaborate bed hangings for his home at Kelmscott Manor, which were exhibited in the 1893 Arts and Crafts Exhibition. Her younger sister Elizabeth (‘Lollie’; 1868–1940) was a formidable person who could turn her hand to anything. She wrote, painted, trained as a Froebel teacher, taught art in schools, wrote four manuals on painting, and learned the art of printing at the Women’s Printing Society. 

Prints of artwork by George Atkinson and Hilda Roberts, and words by William Butler Yeats, printed by Cuala Press

So Lily and Lollie were obvious choices when designer Evelyn Gleeson set up the Dun Emer Guild, a crafts collective in Dublin named after the legendary artistic wife of Cuchulain. The guild’s mission was to ‘find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things’. Lily and Lollie moved back to Ireland with their father, settling at a house in Churchtown opposite the Bottle Tower pub, and began work in the guild: Evelyn managed the rugs and tapestries, Lily ran the embroidery projects (such as banners for Loughrea Cathedral) and Lollie produced books with the aid of a second-hand printing press. Young girls were trained in the various skills, and Dun Emer’s first publication was William Butler Yeats’s book of poems In the Seven Woods. This unwittingly got them a mention in Joyce’s Ulysses – the character Buck Mulligan refers to ‘five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind.’

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