Althea Gyles (1868–1949), a Protestant Irishwoman, was a late Victorian writer and artist. Associated with W. B. Yeats, she was part of a series of cliques of the 1890s and made a valuable contribution to the Celtic Revival and to the development of the English Decadence. Her poems are small, fragile works in a manner reminiscent of Ernest Dowson, but she found an original voice in her book-art, designing both illustrations and covers.

Though largely unknown today, her status in the 90s was considerable: as Kristin Mahoney explains, she was regarded ‘by many [as] one of the most interesting illustrators and book designers working at the end of the century’ (119). However, her reputation was destroyed by her turbulent private life – principally a disastrous affair with the publisher of pornographic material, Leonard Smithers – and by the onset of depression, caused by the end of their relationship, which ultimately led to a life of miserable poverty and isolation. These circumstances were intensified by her eccentric desire to live a life of bohemian self-immolation in a patriarchal culture with limited recognition for female talent. Mahoney details this ‘martyrdom’ at length, regretting the promise that was never to be realized (119), although other (male) critics have been less than sympathetic and tend to be dismissive of what was clearly a psychological illness. Ian Fletcher’s brisk commentary is typical; suspecting self-indulgence, he demands ‘what was wrong with her? Anaemia? Consumption? Or did she [make illness] her career, a position she had taken up and worked hard at?’ (74).

Left: Dewtime. 1894. An illustration to her own poem. Right two: Untitled illustrations to Oscar Wild’s The Harlot’s House. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Afflicted by these difficulties, Gyles’s visual legacy consists of a series of illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s The Harlot’s House (1904), along with images in the pages of The Dome. By far her greatest achievement, however, was in the form of her book covers. Her oeuvre was modest, consisting of only seven original bindings, but these are among the most imposing and controversial of their period, and bear direct comparison with the experimental works of Charles Ricketts and Aubrey Beardsley.

Gyles and the Late Victorian Context

Gyles produced her covers in one of the golden periods of Victorian book binding, with new developments in both elite editions bound in leather and vellum and in the production of cloth and card casings for the general public. Trade bindings were especially dynamic: matched only by work of the sixties, when John Leighton and Albert Warren were creating extravagant gilt designs for gift-books, the nineties were driven forward by the talents of Aubrey Beardsley, A. A. Turbayne, Laurence Housman and Gleeson White, whose liveries were figured as intense works in the styles of Arts and Crafts and in the new idiom of Art Nouveau.

It was also a period in which binding was the subject of critical evaluation. Gleeson White analysed the latest productions in a series of essays and reviews, commentary on the style of book covers featured in reviews, and influential writers such as Oscar Wilde and Ernest Dowson promoted the notion of the ‘book beautiful’ and the relationship between poetic texts and their exteriors. Esther Wood crystallized this emerging discourse in her ‘Modern Book Bindings and Their Designers’ a Studio Special issued at the end of 1899; presented as a series of essays on British and European practitioners, Wood’s collection reflects on the experimentalism of late Victorian book-designers as they stretched the limits of their art.

Working in this context, Gyles engaged with many of the key concerns of the time. Following the example of her contemporaries, her casings deploy the style of Art Nouveau: sinuous, bold, and self-consciously designed to impress, they are never less than sophisticated and striking. Taken at face value, they are fine pieces of decoration, which, Wood explains, are concerned with the ‘beautifying of a given space’ (9). But Gyles was more concerned with the question of the relationship between the binding and text; exploring, if not always adhering, to Gleeson White’s dictum as voiced in one of his essays in The Studio (1894), that all covers should demonstrate ‘fitness … to the contents of the book’, she creates a complex relationship between the cover and the interior.

This relationship is expressed in a symbolic, rather than an ‘illustrative manner’ (Wood, 9); Yeats described his collaborator as a symbolic artist and she is often viewed as a Symbolist whose bindings have the complexity of contemporary verse and painting. Always conceived as more than strictly functional, her bindings are dense texts which visualize the books’ central messages in a coded form, compelling the viewer to engage in the process of deciphering.

Most of her symbolism is relatively accessible, though she sometimes appeals to an esoteric knowledge known only by the small coteries familiar with Celtic mythology and the iconography of the occult society of the Golden Dawn, the somewhat bizarre organization, patronized by Yeats, with which she was briefly associated. Indeed, some of Gyles’s work is unashamedly elitist and is more suited to the super-refinement of the private presses than mass publishers. Contemporaries noted this emphasis, especially Esther Wood. While acknowledging her individuality, the critic disapproves of Gyles’s inaccessibility, writing of Yeats’s Poems (1899) that her binding ‘belongs properly to the neo-Celtic school [and is] highly characteristic of a sombre, mystical and weird imaginative power expressing itself through a talent still vagrant and diffuse’ (‘Modern Book Bindings’, 32).

That ‘weird imaginative power’ and its mystical imagery are as remote from modern understandings as they were from those of the original audiences. Readings of Gyles’s bindings have been undertaken by a number of modern scholars, among them Ian Fletcher (1971) Warwick Gould (2004) and Arianna Antonielli (2011), although making sense of all of their implications is a rich and open-ended field.

Gyles’s ‘Precise Symbolism’

Writing principally of her poetry in A Treasury of Irish Poetry, Yeats remarks on the fact that Gyles’s covers combine both ‘beauty of design’ and ‘precise symbolism’, which fuse unusual imagery with a complex registration of the books’ contents. Her work for Dowson’s Decorations in Verse and Prose (1899), one of the rarest books of the century, exemplifies this duality.

Figured as an elegant combination, on the front cover, of a rose and bud sprouting from a thorny stalk and (on the rear) as a congested interlace of brambles, the design projects a notion of sophisticated beauty. Fletcher thinks it ‘uninspired’ and derivative of Selwyn Image’s influential front cover (66–7) for The Century Guild Hobby Horse (1888), which was copied by artists of the ’90s such as Fred Mason. But Fletcher underrates the complexity of Gyle’s response, which goes well beyond Image and is better understood as late Victorian Aestheticism, a sort of self-conscious beauty in service of the delicate effects of Dowson’s Decadent verse. Stamped in gold on a white ground, framed with gilt lines and with quatrefoils placed at the corners, it is a considered visual response to the text it encloses.

Its imagery cleverly exemplifies the poet’s writing of the wearisome excesses of a life afflicted by the process of decay. One inspiration may have been ‘A Last Word’, where the poet balances in teetering opposition ‘Our life-sick hearts’ and the fatalistic appeal of ‘Hollow Lands’ and ‘dust’. This is essentially the life-in-death philosophy of the Decadence, and on the front cover Gyles symbolizes its tone by showing a withering rose, emblem of death, in union with a life-affirming power of a vibrant, sinuous stem and a newly-emerging bud. Responsive to Dowson’s verse, Gyles celebrates life while simultaneously suggesting its frail limitations; the poet’s pessimism is also projected in the thorniness of the design on the rear, which acts as a metaphor of the existential struggle. At once almost painfully refined and rather unsettling, Gyles’s design is entirely a product of its zeitgeist, and is inseparable from the text it symbolizes.

Gyles uses another form of ‘precise symbolism’ in her work for The Idyls of Killowen, by Russell Matthews (1899). These ‘secular verses’ are infused with the nature imagery of Ireland, and Gyles embodies this focus in a repeating pattern of clovers in green which establish the pastoral tone and project a characteristic idea of Irish Celticism.

Gyles’s emphasis on the sophisticated interconnection between the covers and the contents is further developed in her compositions for four of Yeats’s publications. She did two covers for The Wind Among the Reeds (1899–1900). The rare second binding (1900) subtly prefigures the poems’ delicate imagery, depicting the ‘silver apples of the moon’ that appear in ‘The Song of the Wandering Aengus’, while the first, and more celebrated of the two (1899), is a complicated reflection on the collection as a whole. Figured as an interlace, with different patterns on the front and rear boards, this cover symbolizes several elements from the verse. As in the second binding, it is to some extent a stylized illustration: the poems contains several references to reeds and the movement of wind as elements within an abstracted Irish landscape and Gyles projects this imagery in her gilt pattern of stalks arranged in a diptych of arabesques, ‘performing’, Antonielli remarks, ‘at a plastic level the very title of the volume’ (188).

The cover also suggests some of the poems’ underlying metaphors, although its exact meaning remains opaque, with several critics offering possible meanings. Ian Fletcher and Allen Grossman are in broad agreement, arguing that the moving reeds are a means of symbolizing the wind as a sign of poetic inspiration, capturing in a visual form the inspiring breeze that we might otherwise encounter in Coleridge’s ‘Dejection’; one poet images the strings of an Aeolian harp, another the natural sway of a series of reeds or rushes (Fletcher, 58). However, the suggestiveness of Gyles’s simplified forms has prompted some wide-ranging interpretations. For instance, Grossman thinks the ‘bowed reeds’ symbolize the poet’s ‘self image … as the overthrown artist’ (qtd, Fletcher, 58), while for Warwick Gould the cover is a materialization of one of the poems, ‘Breasal the fisherman’, and acts as a sign of ‘the poet as fisherman’ of souls (18–19).

This is imaginative criticism, but in my view most of these theories are misplaced and resonate with over-reading. Their critical assumptions take us further and further from the contents of the book, and forget the cover’s function as a means to help the viewer understand elements of the text, and not the wider metaphysics connected with the poet’s status and role.

A simpler explanation, I believe, is a matter of Gyles’s application of a visual equivalent to Yeats’s writing of Celtic history and culture. Yeats delineates the mythological, questing adventures of Aengus, Aedh, Michael Robartes and Hanrahan, characters enmeshed in a timeless domain; and Gyles images this focus as an interlace, the perennial emblem of the interlocking of past and present and the continuum of life. Yeats’s creations are figures of the Celtic eternal, and Gyles encapsulates his theme in the form of the ancient sign most associated with Celtic art – an unending arabesque. Nevertheless, Gyles’s design for The Wind Among the Reeds is ultimately a matter of connotation rather than denotation, a polysemic sign: as Yeats remarks in his essay on the artist’s style, ‘Pattern and rhythm are the road to open symbolism’, coding that remains suggestive of multiple meanings.

Organic imagery loaded with possibilities features more generally in Gyles’s other designs for Yeats, one for his collected Poems (1899) and another for The Secret Rose (1897). For the front cover of the Poems Gyles again deploys a swirling arabesque to suggest the perpetual recurrence of nature as a metaphor for human life. Yeats’s melancholy verse ranges freely from youth to old age, from ‘A Cradle Song’ to poems exploring the emotions of ‘We who are old’ (‘A Faery Song’), and Gyles provides a suggestive equivalent in the form of her bold design. Figured as a central floral motif, a rose superimposed on a cross, the image presents a spreading arabesque of seeds, the emblems of new life to match Yeats’s notion of the perpetual: energetic and uplifting, the dynamic gilt lines prepare the reader for poems such as ‘The Death of Cuchulain’ with its celebration of the ‘tireless banquet’ and its continuous renewal despite the end of time, ‘Where the sun falls into the Western deep’.

At the heart of this pantheism is the emblem of the rose. Yeats deploys this item as a sign of timelessness, of the interconnection between the present and the mystical past: ‘Red rose, proud rose, sad rose of all my days!/Come near me while I sing the ancient ways.(‘To the Rose upon the Rood of Time’). Appropriately, Gyles places this motif at the centre of the design. Yeats described the rose as her ‘central symbol’ and the cover for Poems is an apt fit with the poet’s symbolic imagery; influenced by the writer’s visionary ideas, the artist’s iconography fuses with its textual source. At the same time, Gyles adds other emblems of her own, featuring on the back-strip, which seem to represent the notion of eternal life but convey that message in an arcane and confusing way, with hands ascending the Tree of Life, seeds spreading outwards at the base of the spine and doves and roses, perpetual vitality, featuring in the upper section; a woman’s face, mouth open and singing, reminds us, perhaps, to celebrate the struggle of life.

The cover for the Poems thus oscillates between relative legibility and baffling complexity. The same is true for Gyles’s most intricate and famous work, her binding for Yeats’s The Secret Rose (1897). Yeats’s volume is a collection of short stories peopled by the usual cast of mythic heroes and peasantry, and Gyles focuses, once again, on his themes of renewal and timelessness. In her front cover, she materializes these ideas in the form of a dense, thorny rose bush with a blossom in the exact middle and other roses placed along the upper edge; its roots grow out of the skeleton of an ancient knight, two lovers kiss and light emanates at the four corners; seeds are placed in a lower band the same seeds border the title, which is placed at the very top of the board.

The design is in other words a very graphic representation of vigorous life. Stylistically, it is highly eclectic, based on a series of borrowings. The format, with its division into a predella and main panel is partly based on the conventions of Renaissance altarpieces. Gyles also incorporates the divisions of the ‘cadaver’ tomb of medieval art, with a decomposing body placed below the figure in life, here replaced with the rose tendrils: an idiom the artist may have derived from tombs in Ireland or England but is likelier taken from a painted version, perhaps Masaccio’s Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, Florence (1420). Her message, though, is a reversal of the original convention, which warned of the frailties of life; her image, by contrast, affirms the vitality of nature, with fresh growth emerging from the bones of the skeleton in a convoluted pattern of roots.

The knotted bush of tendrils has elsewhere been read as an allusion to cabalistic iconography. Gould argues that it was inspired by the knot-work of the eleventh century sacramentary of Fleury (Gould, Oxford), and others have interpreted the binding not so much as a representation of Yeats’s short stories but more as an elaborate, highly coded representation of the beliefs of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which were based on the Kabbala and drew on Jewish mysticism. Viewed in these terms, Antonielli argues, the cover design can be read as a symbolic inscription of the cabalistic Tree of Life and symbolizes the presence of Malkuth, Sephira and Tiphereth. She concludes that it acts as a ‘sort of diagram … a map which is immediately recognized by the esoteric readers of Yeats’s volume’ (282). The comment is telling, for herein lies the problem of Gyles’s binding: its imagery of endlessly resurrecting life signals the content of the author’s short stories, but few – Antonielli’s ‘esoteric readers’ – would have any idea of any of its Cabalistic messages, which are essentially presented in a secret code.

Gyles’s covers might thus be read in Yeats’s terms as versions of ‘precise symbolism’ that stretch the conventions of visual language and create a series of unstable relationships between their texts and the covers and between the covers and their viewers. Sometimes her bindings are ‘precise’ in the sense of capturing the tenor of the poet’s themes and to a large extent her liveries pronounce their contents. When we come to The Secret Rose, however, it is hard to see the purpose of deploying a symbolic scheme that barely any of the book’s original readers would be able to decode. It is for this reason that Gyles stands alone, creating a curious body of bindings which occlude as much as they reveal.

Related material

Covers Designed by Gyles

Dowson, Ernest. Decorations in Verse and Prose. London: Leonard Smithers, 1899.

Russell, Matthews. The Idyls of Killowen. London: Bowden, 1899.

Whyte-Rodyng, John. The Night. London: Leonard Smithers, 1900.

Yeats, W. B. Poems. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1899.

Yeats, W. B. The Secret Rose. Illustrated by Jack Yeats. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1897.

Yeats, W. B. The Wind Among the Reeds. London: Elkin Matthews, 1899.

Yeats, W. B. The Wind Among the Reeds. London: Elkin Matthews, 1900.

Secondary Material

Antonielli, Arianna. ‘Althea Gyles’ Symbolic (De) Codification of William Butler Yeats’ “Rose and Wind Poetry.”’ Studi Irlandesi: A Journal of Irish Studies 1:1 (2011): 271–301.

Fletcher, Ian. ‘Poet and Designer: W. B. Yeats and Althea Gyles.’ Yeats Studies 1 (1971): 42–79.

Gould, Warwick. ‘Gyles, Margaret Aletha [known as Althea Gyles].’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Mahoney, Kristin. Literature and the Politics of Post-Victorian Decadence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

A Treasury of Irish Poetry in the English Tongue, eds. Stopford A Brooke & T. W. Rolleston. London: Macmillan, 1900.

Wood, Esther. ‘British Trade Book Bindings and Their Designers, Modern Book Bindings and Their Designers - The Studio, Special Winter No. (1899 –1900): 3–38.

Yeats, W. B. ‘A Symbolic Artist and the Coming of Symbolic Art.’ The Dome 1 (1898): 233–37. [Reproduced on the Victorian Web].

Last modified 15 May 2020