“A strange red-haired girl . . .”
Above: The only known photo of Althea Gyles, portrait of Aleister Crowley, and a caricature of W. B. Yeats
More than prepared to turn her back on her wealthy Irish family and endure – perhaps even enjoy – poverty and hardship for her art, Althea Gyles (1868-1949) was a talented artist, designer and poet who clearly made an impression on more than a few of the notorious magician-poets of her day . . .
Margaret Althea Gyles, to give her full name, did not start out as a starving bohemian. She was born in her family home, Kilmurry, County Waterford, in 1868 to the daughter of Edward Grey, Bishop of Hereford. According to the poet W. B. Yeats, her father was “mad, controlling”, and apparently the family were considered so haughty by their neighbors that they sarcastically referred to them as “The Royal Family.” Almost inevitably, Althea ran away from home to Dublin, after quarreling with her father, to study Art — barely managing to support herself by selling a watch and writing some stories for a newspaper.
Above: bookplate drawn by Althea Gyles c.1895 for Lady Colin Campbell (aka Bertrude Elizabeth Blood), a member of The Golden Dawn.
Yeats first met her living in a Theosophical commune in Dublin, alongside critic, poet, and Irish Nationalist George William Russell, who also wrote of his mystical experiences under the pen-name ‘Æ’ (short for ‘Aeon’.) The landlord, E. J. Dick, had come across Althea “starving somewhere in an unfurnished or half-furnished room” apparently living for many weeks “upon bread and shell-cocoa, so that her food never cost her more than a penny a day.” Yeats described Gyles as “a strange red-haired girl, all whose thoughts were set upon painting and poetry, conceived as abstract images . . . and to these images she sacrificed herself with Asiatic fanaticism.”
After falling out with Dick and his wife, and writing a short novel which remained unpublished, The Woman Without A Soul (the plot of which concerned a black magician), Gyles moved to London in 1892 to continue her Fine Art studies, this time at the Slade. She befriended Oscar Wilde, and resumed her association with Yeats — later designing covers for volumes of his poetry, such as The Secret Rose (1897), inspired by Cabalistic iconography and his interest in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Yeats heaped praise upon her, saying:
“Miss ALTHEA GYLES may come to be one of the most important of the little group of Irish poets who seek to express indirectly through myths and symbols, or directly in little lyrics full of prayers and lamentations, the desire of the soul for spiritual beauty and happiness.”
He likewise complimented “the beautiful lithe figures of her art half mortal traged, half immortal ecstasy” in an essay for The Dome magazine.
Inevitably, through the Golden Dawn and London Literary Circles, Gyles came into contact with the The Great Beast, with whom she had a short-lived affair (one commentator describing her as “the woman who dumped Aleister Crowley.”) Crowley caricatured her as ‘Hypatia Gay’ in his short story ‘At the Fork of the Roads’ (with her “steely virginal eyes”) in which he paints himself very much as the noble esoteric hero, opposing the ‘lank dishevelled demonologist’ Yeats (= ‘Will Bute’) over the very soul of the poor misled girl.
In 1899, Gyles illustrated Wilde’s The Harlot’s House, which was published by Leonard Smithers, a London publisher best known for his association with the Decadent movement, and later designed the covers for Ernest Dowson’s Decorations. Her subsequent relationship with Smithers, a bad-tempered alcoholic and drug-addict whom many considered as little better than a pornographer, alienated her from most of her friends, including the previously supportive Yeats. Only a year later, the poet Arthur Symons found her living in an empty room at 15 Granby Place, Hampstead Road, “without a thing in the place, except five books (one a presentation copy from Oscar Wilde) and one or two fantastic gold ornaments which she used to wear; chloral by her side, and the bed strewn with manuscripts.” In a bid to help her, he tried to arranged for Duckworth to publish a collection her poems, but they said they would do so only if she removed her dedication to “the beautiful memory of Oscar Wilde” (this was after the Trial and Scandal, of course.) Gyles refused, and this loyalty to a dead friend – “the kindest man she ever met” — meant the book was never published.
Above: illustration for The Harlot’s House, by Oscar Wilde.
Symons described Smithers as “a drunken brute whom no one could stand” who “left her as soon as he had alienated her other friends.” The breakdown of her relationship with Smithers led to a collapse in her health, from which Gyles never completely recovered. Although she continued to write and paint, taking an interest in casting horoscopes, Buddhism, anti-vivisection, and vegetarianism, she was beset with ill health and mostly drifted, moving from one cheap rented room to another. Around 1901 she was said to have suffered a breakdown, and refused to draw again. For a while she was supported by friends like the journalist and critic Clifford Bax — friend to Austin Osman Spare, with whom he collaborated on the artistic & literary magazine The Golden Hind — but in the end Bax grew increasingly frustrated with Gyles, considering her little better than a parasite. Her friend, Dublin-born artist & collector Cecil French, described Gyles as “a noble difficult being who invariably became the despair of those who had helped her.”
In later years a publisher encouraged Gyles to write her memoirs of the 1890s, as a result she wrote a novel, Pilgrimage, but it was rejected. She continued to publish verse occasionally in a variety of journals, and there was talk of another collection of her work, but it remained in transcript due to her inability to proof it, claiming “the effort would kill her” — but nobody else was allowed to correct it either. By the 1930s, Gyles was living in awful conditions with a big mongrel dog in a basement in Brixton, apparently, and the last address recorded for her was 19 Tredown Road, Lewisham — described as a bare room, but for a chaise longue on which she slept, a few ‘antiques’ of doubtful value, and her manuscripts.
Althea Gyles died in a nursing home in Kent on the 23rd of January, 1949.
Above: the only known photo of Althea Gyles, with her friend Countess Constance Markievicz, née Gore-Booth (Irish Nationalist, Sinn Féin politician, and Suffragette.)