Wednesday 22 May 2019

Revealing photo album of Ireland's wildest women

CLASSICAL AND CANDID: Constance Gore Booth, left, in classic pose; a relaxed Constance with Althea Gyles, top, in the artist's studio; Percy Getting, above, with Constance and his portrait of her


SHE stares rather disconsolately into the middle distance like a little too much absinthe has been taken and a cigarette droops languidly from her full lips.

Her companion stares directly and defiantly at the camera, beautiful, Bohemian and with sexual frankness that would have scandalised her contemporaries in well born Ango-Irish society.

Even today it is a provocative image but this remarkable photograph also sheds new light on two of the wildest women in Irish history.

The gaunt and hauntingly fragile figure on the left is none other than Countess Constance Markiewicz - revolutionary, suffragette and Ireland's first woman cabinet minister.

On the right is the artist Althea Gyles, the wild red-headed poet who was to design and illustrate Yeats's great masterpieces andwho, like Yeats, dabbled inthe occult in a life punctuated by excess and sexual shenanigans.

The portraits of Constance Gore-Booth are contained in a family photo album probably from the Sterry family and hitherto unseen by scholars. The exciting discovery is for sale with the antiquarian book dealers Jarndyce of Bloomsbury.

The 76 page folio album in half black morocco contains 189 meticulously aptioned images including 37 of Constance Gore-Booth. Most are carefully and artfully composed in the classical style.

But it is the candid photographs which have the power to excite the contemporary viewer. And there is also a charming if naive watercolour of Constance by her sister Mable Gore-Booth and two ink portraits by her other sister Eva.

There is other ephemera including a programme and ticket for the Anti-Home Rule Demonstration in the Albert Hall London in 1893.

What is striking is the arresting familiarity between Constance and Althea in the photograph taken at Stanley Studios and signed with the monogram "CB".

The grubby and slightly louche backdrop of an artist's studio is a world away from the grandeur of Lissadel House in Sligo where the famous sisters, muses to the poet WB Yeats, grew up. But both women are clearly revelling in the Bohemian lifestyle.

Althea Gyles was born in 1868 in Kilmurry Co Waterford. Her father George Gyles came from an old and distinguished local family, and her mother Alithea Emma was the daughter of Edward Grey, Bishop of Hereford.

Her association with WB Yeats began in Dublin and continued in London. Both became members of the occultist group, the Hermetic Order of Golden Dawn which was the most influential group to emerge in the 19th century occult revival.

She was to have scandalous affairs with Leonard Smithers among others and was a friend and confidante of Wilde. Her fine, and, for the time, highly erotic drawings featured in a pirated version of Wilde's The Harlot's House. Gyles was to end her life in poverty in her rooms in Brixton in 1949 while Countess Markiewicz went on to play a central role in the Easter Rising and was sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment "on account of the prisoner's sex".

She told the court: "I do wish you lot had the decency to shoot me."

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