PHYLLIS GARDNER AND RUPERT BROOKE;
A SECRET ROMANCE
On 10th March 2000, the head curator of the British Library manuscripts department unwrapped a sealed parcel which contained what she described as “without doubt the most exciting documents I have ever dereserved.” Contained therein were over a hundred letters exchanged by Phyllis Gardner and Rupert Brooke between 1912 and 1915 together with a poignant memoir written by Phyllis in which she laid bare, with moving honesty, the details of their romantic liaison.
The documents had been deposited at the British Library by Phyllis’s younger sister Delphis in 1949 on the understanding that they should not be opened for 50 years due to their intimate nature.
Lorna Beckett, Chairman of the Rupert Brooke Society, was asked by the Rupert Brooke Trustees to edit the letters and memoir; her book is completed and will be published shortly.
Phyllis Gardner was born on 6th October 1890 in Cambridge, England, the eldest child of the noted archaeologist and authority on ancient Greece, Professor Ernest Arthur Gardner and his wife Mary, nee Wilson, of the MacDermotts of Coolavin, Co. Sligo, Ireland.
Phyllis was later to write “my own family tree has leaves of rose and thistle as well as shamrock.” The rose a reference to her English father and both the thistle and the shamrock representing her Celtic mother.
The first few years of Phyllis’s life were spent in Athens where her father was head of the British School of Archaeology. In 1896, shortly after her father took up the post of Yates Professor of Archaeology at University College London, the family moved to the newly built “Farm Corner” at Tadworth, at that time, an unspoilt part of rural Surrey. It was here that sister Delphis was born in 1900 and brother Christopher two years later.
In 1908 Phyllis entered the Slade School of Art where she studied Fine Art; rubbing shoulders with Isaac Rosenberg, Stanley Spencer and Dora Carrington. Phyllis was almost certainly a classmate of Gwen Raverat, grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, who had entered the Slade at the same time. Both young ladies were following the Fine Art course and learning the, then little-practised, art of wood engraving. Gwen was a good friend of Rupert Brooke and through this mutual acquaintance Phyllis first met Rupert.
Phyllis was an attractive 21 year old woman when she started a romantic relationship with Rupert, three years her senior, and a young man described by W.B.Yeats as “the handsomest man in England.” They first met in 1912 when Brooke was studying at Kings College Cambridge and lodging at Grantchester in the Old Vicarage. A volume of his poetry entitled Poems had been published the previous year. Phyllis continued her studies at the Slade and the Frank Calderon School of Animal Painting. In October 1912 Brooke penned the poem Beauty and Beauty for Phyllis recalling a moonlight tryst they shared at Grantchester.
Sadly the relationship was marred by conflict. Rupert wanted to consummate the relationship without committing to marriage; admitting he was a “wanderer” who desired sexual freedom.
This attitude and lifestyle was unacceptable to Phyllis. Nevertheless, she remained in love with Rupert and hoped he would eventually return to her. Tragically this would never happen.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 Phyllis drove a munitions lorry and later served as a clerk in the Admiralty. Brooke, imbued with patriotic fervour, volunteered for military service. In September 1914 he was commissioned Sub-Lieutenant RNVR and posted to Anson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division. In early October 1914 Brooke saw action with the battalion in the unsuccessful attempt to defend the Belgian city of Antwerp from the advancing Germans. After the city’s fall Brooke and his company marched 25 miles in retreat through a wasted landscape which he described as “a truer Hell.” Evacuated back to England Brooke, to stay with friends, transferred to A Company, Hood Battalion, RND.
In February 1915 the battalion set sail for the Dardanelles and the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. At the end of March Brooke was in Egypt on exercise, he became ill with sunstroke and dysentery. On 10th April Brooke’s troopship left Port Said and 7 days later arrived off the south west of the Greek island of Skyros where, with his fellow officers, Brooke spent the next few days exercising with the troops.
During the evening of 20th April Brooke fell ill; a swelling on his upper lip, probably a mosquito bite inflicted in Egypt, became inflamed. Infection spread and blood poisoning set in. On 22nd April Brooke was transferred to a French hospital ship; his condition deteriorated and he died, aged 27 years, in the late afternoon of Friday 23rd April 1915. Rupert Brooke was buried in a lone grave sited in an olive grove on Skyros half a mile from Trebuki Bay. He was the first of the famous War Poets of the First World War to die. His brother Alfred, an officer in the Post Office Rifles, was killed in France 2 months later.
After 1918 the Gardner family moved home several times before settling in a house called “Recess” in Maidenhead which remained the family home for the next 30 years or so. In 1919 Phyllis resumed her artistic work and started miniature sculpture in ivory, which aroused great interest at many important exhibitions. She and her sister ran a printing press at home and founded the publishing house Asphodel Press producing limited edition art books for themselves and others. As well as being talented artists, producing beautiful wood engravings and carvings, the sisters also made silver jewellery.
It was in Maidenhead that, in addition to her artistic and literary activities, Phyllis, who never married, immersed herself in what was to become a great passion for the rest of her life – Irish Wolfhounds.
Breeding at least 6 litters between 1931 and 1934 under the kennel name Coolavin (derived from her mother’s ancestral Irish home), Phyllis was already a member of the Irish Wolfhound Club when she was elected to the committee in 1932.
In 1931 Phyllis published her unique work The Irish Wolfhound: A Short Historical Sketch, illustrated with “over one hundred wood engravings specially cut by the author and her sister.” This work was reprinted in 1981.
The sisters made other notable contributions to the breed literature. Together they produced the two Yearbooks 1937 and 1938 published by the Irish Wolfhound Society (Ireland). Phyllis also edited the 1939 combined reprint of The Irish Wolfdog by Hogan and The Irish Wolfhound by Graham. Before her untimely death Phyllis had embarked upon the daunting task of editing Graham’s stud book. Delphis took over the task; labouring for the next 20 years, until its final publication in 1959 as Irish Wolfhound Pedigrees 1859 –1906, after her own death.
Finally the sisters’ collection of Irish Wolfhound related photographs and illustrations, the “Gardner Albums,” which was never published in their lifetimes, was made available as Some Great IrishGreyhounds and Wolfdogs from the past published by the Irish Wolfhound Club of Ireland in 2001 through the generosity of Miss Elizabeth Murphy (Carrokeel).
Phyllis Gardner died from breast cancer on Thursday 16th February 1939, aged 48 years. She was buried the following Monday after a “brief and simple service” in the grounds of the Church of St James-the-Less, Stubbings, Maidenhead, Berkshire, England. An obituary for an “Artist of Considerable Ability” in the local newspaper details the well attended funeral and quotes some of the affectionate messages that accompanied flowers left by family, friends and leading figures of the day within the breed.
Predeceased by her mother in 1936, Delphis struggled on caring for her sick father, who died in 1940 some 10 months after Phyllis, autistic brother Christopher, 5 Irish Wolfhounds, a deerhound, 4 Springer Spaniels and a terrier.
Left on their own Delphis and Christopher, neither of whom ever married, were unable to cope. In 1949 the siblings moved to Ireland taking up residence in Curracloe, Co. Wexford. Before leaving Maidenhead Delphis deposited at the British Library the love letters of her deceased sister and Rupert Brooke.
In Ireland at least 4 more Coolafin litters were whelped between 1952 and 1956. Delphis died in 1959 and Christopher some years later.
Phyllis’ parents are buried together in the grounds of the Church of St James-the-Less. Their grave is marked by a carefully designed, probably by Phyllis, headstone.
In marked contrast, Phyllis lies a few yards away in an unmarked plot. To us it seems both wrong and terribly sad that the mortal remains of such a notable and highly regarded women as Phyllis Gardner should remain thus.
The final resting place of one so pivotal in the breeding and literature of the Irish Wolfhound must be suitably commemorated in recognition of her pre-eminent place in the history of the breed she loved so much.
Lorna Beckett Dr Nicholas Wilkes
Chairman, The Rupert Brooke Society Strickenoak Irish Wolfhounds Norfolk Northumberland
If you would like to contribute towards the refurbishment of Phyllis Gardner's final resting place you can donate funds using PayPal. All funds received by the club will be forwarded to the Rupert Brook Society.