August 2011

Fairy Gold by Phyllis Gardner


Sir Andrew Motion, Former Poet Laureate and Rupert Brooke Trustee: “Fairy Gold is a beautiful and rare work by Phyllis Gardner – and worth treasuring for its own sake. The fact that it encodes her feelings for Rupert Brooke gives it an even greater significance – one that deserves to be widely recognised.”

Dr Nicholas Marston, King’s College, Cambridge: “King’s is very pleased to be able to help the RBS in its efforts to secure this important and very touching painting. That it might eventually join Brooke’s own portrait in the College of which he was an undergraduate and Fellow seems highly appropriate.”

Professor Jon Stallworthy, Rupert Brooke Trustee, biographer and poet: “Under seal in a national library for 51 years, 70 letters between Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner, and the young painter’s 91-page memoir of her passionate friendship with the poet, now await publication. The emergence of this ‘bright star’ in his firmament made an impact easily understood with the re-emergence of her beautiful self-portrait, Fairy Gold.”

We are delighted to be able to report that the ‘Fairy Gold’ Appeal has been a great success, largely thanks to so many of our members making generous donations but also to non-members worldwide who heard of our appeal and backed it. It has been truly heartwarming to see the level of support.

We took the appeal to the Irish Wolfhound world, to whom Phyllis Gardner is something of a heroine (as she helped save the breed from near extinction) and they donated well, as did members of the public who read about the appeal in Country Life magazine (22 June issue). Word was also spread through the Alliance of Literary Societies which led to members from other literary societies contributing, the most notable of which was the George Eliot Fellowship who donated £100 from their own funds. Support was worldwide: donations came in from New Zealand, China, U.S.A, Canada, Australia, Norway, Germany and Greece, and I’ve been told that our special issue ‘Fairy Gold’ card is now gracing the walls in homes in many of these countries. We are also grateful and proud to have received the full backing of Rupert Brooke Trustees, Jon Stallworthy and Andrew Motion, who provided us with statements of support and a sizable donation from the Rupert Brooke Estate which really helped boost the appeal.

It is important to acknowledge the key role King’s College, Cambridge, has played in all this. From the onset they appreciated the beauty and value of Phyllis Gardner’s self-portrait, donated a large amount towards its purchase, and worked closely with the RBS to make sure ‘Fairy Gold’ become a permanent resident of the College. Special mention must go to Dr Nicholas Marston, Chairman of the King’s Adornment Committee, for his support and enthusiasm.

Finally, none of this would have come about, had it not been for Andrew Sim of Sim Fine Art recognising the connection between Phyllis Gardner and Rupert Brooke, and therefore approaching the Society to tell us he had just purchased ‘Fairy Gold’ in auction. From beginning to end Andrew has gone out of his way to assist the RBS and King’s in purchasing the painting, by both bringing the painting to Cambridge so it could be viewed, and giving us the all-important amount of time to run the appeal. We are sincerely grateful to him.

Thank you all so much for getting behind this appeal and making it such a success.

The story behind the painting

‘Fairy Gold’ was painted by Phyllis Gardner in 1913 and exhibited and sold at the New English Exhibition (Winter) in the same year. It measures 5ft by 2ft 7in, is in watercolour and appears to be in its original gilt frame. It is a self-portrait of Phyllis Gardner, symbolising her feelings on her love affair with the famous War Poet, Rupert Brooke, likening Brooke, or her relationship with him, to Fairy Gold. The paintings title alludes to fairy legends where they use magic to disguise appearance. Fairy Gold is notoriously unreliable, appearing as gold when paid, but it soon turns into leaves or a variety of other worthless objects.

It is important to provide some provenance for this painting as this greatly adds to its significance. On 10 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”. For over 85 years the correspondence of over a hundred letters between Brooke and Gardner dating from 1912 to 1915, and a memoir by her laying bare with moving honesty the details of their affair from beginning to end had been kept a secret by a 50-year embargo that had been placed on them due to their intimate nature.

Lorna Beckett was chosen by the Rupert Brooke Trustees, Professor Jon Stallworthy and Andrew Motion, to edit the letters and memoir; the book has been completed and should be published in the not too distant future. Until then, little is known publicly about this relationship and in particular Phyllis Gardner.

Brooke and Gardner met in 1912, he was studying at King’s College, Cambridge, lodging at Grantchester in the Old Vicarage, and his first (and only during his lifetime) volume of poetry entitled Poems had just been published. She was studying at the Slade and at the Frank Calderon School of Animal Painting. Brooke write his poem ‘Beauty and Beauty’ for Phyllis, recalling a moonlight tryst they had at Grantchester.

In 1913 things deteriorated between them when Gardner refused to consummate their relationship without further commitment from Brooke. He then left for America to write articles for the Westminster Gazette. It was at this time Gardner painted ‘Fairy Gold’, which was a significant painting for her both because it symbolises her feelings about her relationship with Brooke and it was the first painting she had accepted for a New English exhibition. It is also the only painting she mentions by name in her memoir (written in 1918):

I set to work and produced a picture which was accepted, and hung in a good position, at the New English. This was the first success of this kind I had had. The picture was called “Fairy Gold”. And represented a young woman standing in an autumn wood, sadly looking down at a lapful of dead leaves. Some person unknown bought it, and I have not seen it since.

The poet Robert Frost, who was a friend of the Gardner family, even refers to this painting and Gardner’s foundering relationship with Brooke in a note to his friend John T. Bartlett:

We know this hardly treated girl oh very well. Her beauty is her red hair. Her cleverness is in painting. She has a picture in the New English Exhibition. Her mother has written a volume of verse in which he gets his. Very funny. No one will die.

Brooke and Gardner continued to correspond until his death in 1915: Phyllis always hoping until the end that Rupert would return to her.

This is probably the first time this painting has surfaced since it was sold in 1913. It is believed that the setting among the beech trees is a location near to Phyllis’ home in Tadworth, Surrey, where Brooke and she walked. Gardner’s artwork hardly ever appears on the market, so it is very exciting that this key painting has been discovered and secured for King’s College Cambridge and The Rupert Brooke Society.


Phyllis Gardner with one of her beloved Irish Wolfhounds, 1934.
Phyllis Gardner with one of her beloved Irish Wolfhounds, 1934.