Gyles, Althea (writer)
Margaret Alethea Gyles (c. Jan 1867–23 Jan 1949), known as Althea Gyles, was an Irish writer, poet and artist, mostly known for her book cover designs, particularly those of W. B. Yeats. Her artwork contributed to the developments of the Celtic Revival and English Decadence movements, alongside fellow figures such as AE Russell and Aubrey Beardsley.
Gyles was born in Kilmurry, County Waterford to George Gyles, a member of a ‘prominent’ old Anglo-Irish family, and Alithea Emma Grey, the daughter of Edward Grey, Bishop of Hereford.
In 1889 Gyles went to Dublin to study art at a school on St. Stephen’s Green. Soon after she met E. J. Dick, who invited her to live as part of the Theosophical Society’s commune at 3 Ely Place. There she also met AE Russell, and in 1891 became associated with W. B. Yeats after he had joined the household. Gyles left the household after several disagreements, moving into 53 Mountpleasant Square in Dublin. She soon wrote an unpublished novel, Woman without a Soul, focusing on a magician who practiced black magic and animal sacrifices.
Gyles moved to London in 1892, and from 1893 began studying at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she began to write verse. Her poem Dew-time was published in The Pall Mall Magazine, influenced by AE Russell’s work and occasionally worked over by Yeats. While mixing in London’s literary circles she became acquainted with several writers, including Oscar Wilde, who was a great admirer of her art and would later request for her to illustrate some of his works.
In 1896 Gyles established a studio at a house in Fitzroy Square, where her friends included the art critic Lady Colin Campbell and Yellow Book artist Mabel Dearmer. Several of her illustrations appeared in publications and works such as The Commonweal (1896) and T. W. Rolleston’s Deirdre: The Feis Ceoil Prize Cantata (1897).
At this time both Yeats and Gyles were closely associated with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn , a secret society dedicated to the practice of the occult. The mystic iconography popularised by the Order inspired Gyles’ wraparound designs for Yeats’ The Secret Rose in 1897, with Celtic knotwork and naturalistic symbols such as roses, thorns, and roots. Yeats analysed her illustrations in his 1898 essay A symbolic artist and the coming of symbolic art, comparing her work to that of William Blake.
Gyles and Yeats continued to collaborate on designs for his books, contributing to The Wind Among the Reeds and Poems in 1899. Other covers produced by Gyles at this time included Father Matthew Russell’s The Idylls of Killyowen (1898), Ernest Dowson’s Decorations (1899) and John White-Rodyng’s The Night (1900).
In 1899 Gyles provided illustrations for Wilde’s poem The Harlot’s House, working with Leonard Smithers, a publisher, pornographer and patron of Aubrey Beardsley. Their relationship developed into a disastrous affair, which would eventually cause the breakdown of Gyles’ health, as well as the end of her friendship with Yeats. Through her interest in the occult, Gyles was also involved with Aleister Crowley, and would eventually go on to inspire the character of Hypatia Gay in Crowley’s short story At the Fork of the Roads (1909).
In poor health and in financial difficulty, Gyles’ design work slowed by the early 1900s, contributing one of her last book covers to Arthur Humphrey’s Wilde anthology, Sebastian Melmoth (1905). However, she intermittently had verse printed in publications such as the Saturday Review (1900), Kensington (1901), Venture (1905), The Academy (1906), as well as the occultist magazine Orpheus (1912).
In later life Gyles regularly lived in poverty and instead gravitated towards small arts and crafts movements and religious communities. She was particularly drawn to the Order of the Holy Mount in Folkestone, which in turn with her publisher, Grant Richards, asking for her memoirs, inspired her novel Pilgrimage (1919), with characters based on AE Russell and Yeats. The novel was later rejected by Richards.
Gyles’ last known address was 19 Tredown Road, Lewisham, where she lived in a room ‘empty but for a chaise longue, some bric-à-brac’, along with the manuscripts now held as part of the University of Reading’s Special Collections. She died in Kent in 1949 with several unfinished projects remaining after her death, including an alphabet design, The alphabet of the wonderful wood.
This collection contains holograph drafts of scenes from an untitled play, written on small sheets of lined paper and totalling 482 pages; holograph copies of various works; typescripts of Gyles’ works with manuscript corrections; a music manuscript of Carol of Goodwill, a poem by Althea Gyles, with music by Joseph Holbrooke; various papers concerning Althea Gyles, including correspondence and printed copies of Gyles’ poems and biographical notes.
Information about Althea Gyles taken from the following sources:
- Clarke, F. (2009) ‘Gyles, Althea’ in James McGuire, James Quinn (ed.), Dictionary of Irish Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Cooke, S. (2020) Althea Gyles as a Book Cover Designer.
- Gould, W. (2004) Gyles, Margaret Alethea [known as Althea Gyles] (1868–1949), artist and poet.
- Yeats, W. B. (1898) A Symbolic Artist and the Coming of Symbolic Art. The Dome, 1, pp. 233-37.