Friday Fiction: The Life of Althea Gyles: Designer of The Secret Rose

Althea Gyles, the artist and writer who designed the cover of WB Yeats's The Secret Rose (which I reproduced on my special edition book back in 2015), has been variously described as:

  • the “genius who invented a symbolic personality for Yeats” (Warwick Gould)
  • the “fey and slightly manic Irish artist” (Roy Foster)
  • the “wild, red-headed Irish poet” (Jerome Reilly)
  • the “woman who dumped Aleister Crowley” (Simon Jester)
Bohemian life, 1890s. Constance Markievicz (left) and Althea Gyles (right)

For me she was a fascinating and tragic woman, whose life was defined by art, the occult and self-destructive sexual behaviour, one of many such in Yeats's circle.

Alisteir Crowley, dubbed the “wickedest man in the world”, and the pornographer Leonard Smithers were two of her lovers and it all begs questions about her early life, her relationship with her father, and her flight from home to London.

Althea Giles: Theosophy

Yeats first met her in Dublin, when they both lived at the Theosophical Society's commune in Ely Place in the late 1880s. “A strange red-haired girl,” is how he describes her in his memoir, “whose thoughts were set upon painting and poetry, conceived as abstract images… and to these images she sacrificed herself with Asiatic fanaticism.”

Their landlord had discovered her “starving somewhere in an unfurnished or half-furnished room” and realised that she had been living for many weeks “upon bread and shell-cocoa, so that her food never cost her more than a penny a day”.

Althea Gyles: “A mad, controlling Father”

Yet this was not how Althea began. She was born in Waterford (my birth town also) in 1867 into a “county” family. Her mother was Althea née Grey, the daughter of Edward Grey, Bishop of Hereford.

Her father was “mad, controlling”, according to Yeats, and had never, “his tenants declared, ‘unscrewed the top of his flask with any man,' the family being so haughty that their neighbors called them “The Royal Family”.

Althea was raised in the family home at Kilmurry until her quarrels with her father became so bad that she ran away from home to Dublin, to study art.

Althea Gyles London Life: The Occult

After writing an unpublished novel, The Woman Without a Soul, she moved to London, where she, like Yeats and perhaps under his influence, moved from the Theosophical Society to become a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn.

In an 1898 essay on Gyles's work in the Dome, Yeats praises “the beautiful lithe figures of her art half mortal traged, half immortal ecstasy”.

WB Yeats: 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.

althea gyles pictureShe has done, besides the lyric I quote (“Sympathy”, reproduced below), which is charming in form and substance, a small number of poems full of original symbolism and spiritual ardour, though as yet lacking in rhythmical subtlety.

Her drawings and book-covers, in which precise symbolism never interferes with beauty of design, are as yet her most satisfactory expression of herself.”

Elsewhere, Yeat described her art as being “full of [the sort of] abundant and passionate life which brought to mind Blake’s cry, ‘Exuberance is beauty' and Samuel Palmer’s command to the artist: ‘Always seek to make excess more abundantly excessive'.

Yeats chose her as his designer for several books in the 1990s, including The Secret Rose. In 2015, for Yeats2015, I produced a crowdfunded special edition replica of her elegant design, with its detailed gold foiling stamped on navy cloth pictorial boards.

I adore Giles' “exuberance” and “excess” and was thrilled to reproduce it using modern digital tech. I'm not the only one who finds the beauty of this book cover, with its intricate Celtic and occult imagery, endlessly fascinating.

WB Yeats Secret Rose tatoo
Lovely son with his WB Yeats Secret Rose tattoo

As so many other people. Here is my son, who had a tattoo made when of one of Giles' designs from the back cover of my replica of her work.

Althea Gyles: Fictional Character

Althea appears as a character in my Yeats-Gonne series. It is 1900, and occult society The Golden Dawn is split between two warring factions, that of Yeats' old friend, Samuel MacGregor Mathers, promoting Aleister Crowley and the other by Yeats and his followers.

As Mathers promoted Crowley ever higher in the Order's hierarchy, the organisation split leading WB to expel Crowley, thereby splitting the order. Gyles ended her affair with him and took up with Leonard Smithers, the infamous pornography publisher, instead. Crowley, enraged with jealousy, put black spells on the poet, which seriously frightened him but he continued his fight against evil and black magic, as he saw it.

Gyles Illustration from "A Harlot's House" by Oscar Wilde

Althea Giles and Oscar Wilde

Another glimmer of insight into Althea Gyles life and character is that Yeats friend, Arthur Symons, arranged for Duckworth to publish her verse. The publisher said they would do so only if she removed her dedication to “the beautiful memory of Oscar Wilde”.

She refused, and this loyalty to a dead friend – “the kindest man she ever met,” was how she described him — led them to withdraw the book, and she remained unpublished.

She lived on in Brixton, writing and drawing and painting, until her death, in bohemian penury, in 1949.


SYMPATHY: A Poem by Althea Gyles


The colour gladdens all your heart;
You call it Heaven, dear, but I
know Hope and I are far apart,
and call it the sky.

I know that Nature's tears have wet
The world with sympathy; but you,
who know not any sorrow yet,
call it the dew.