Brynhild Olivier

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Brynhild Olivier
Portrait of Brynhild Olivier in late twenties
Brynhild Olivier ca 1913
BornMay 20, 1887
DiedJanuary 13, 1935(1935-01-13) (aged 47)
Cause of deathAplastic anaemia
Resting placeWest Wittering
Other names
Home townLimpsfield
  • (1)
    A. E. Popham (m. 1912–1924)
  • (2)
    F.R.N. Sherrard (m. 1924–1935)

Brynhild ("Bryn") Olivier (1887 – 1935) was the daughter of a Victorian English politician and one of four sisters noted for their progressive ideas, beauty and associations with both Rupert Brooke and his Cambridge circle of Neo-pagans, as well as the Bloomsbury Group. Born in Bloomsbury, London, she was raised and home schooled in Jamaica and Limpsfield, Surrey. Although she had no higher education, she became involved in activities at Cambridge University, through her sisters, who were undergraduates there.

Brynhild Olivier was married twice, first to the art historian, Hugh Popham in 1912, with whom she had three children, including the art scholar, Anne Olivier Bell. Later, she married Raymond Sherrard and had three children, including the poet Philip Sherrard. Brynhild Olivier died in London from aplastic anaemia in 1935, at the age of 47.

Family of origin[edit]

The Honourable[a] Brynhild Olivier, known as Bryn, was the second daughter of Sydney Haldane Olivier, 1st Baron Olivier, and his wife, Margaret Cox.[2] Their father was a leading Fabian, Governor of Jamaica (1907–1913) and a minister in the Labour Government of Ramsay Macdonald in 1924,[3] while their mother was the sister of Harold Cox the Liberal Member of Parliament, and of Agatha Cox, who married the sculptor, Sir William Hamo Thornycroft. Among her father's brothers were Herbert Arnould Olivier, the artist, and Gerard, father of Laurence Olivier, the actor.[4]

The Oliviers were one of the founders of what came to be known as the "aristocracy of the left", with the rise of socialism and the Fabian Society, which included the Webbs and the Shaws, and had close ties to William Morris and Edward Carpenter. These families, in turn raised a generation of progressive children, such as the Oliviers and the Reeves, whose daughter Amber the Olivier daughters would encounter at Cambridge.[5] The Shaws, who were childless, saw the Olivier girls as surrogate daughters, and George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House was loosely modelled on the Oliviers and their siren daughters.[6]

Childhood and education (1887–1907)[edit]

The Oliviers had four children:

Brynhild was born in Bloomsbury, London in 1887 and named after Brynhild, the wise queen and heroine of William Morris's Sigurd the Volsung. Part of their early life was spent in Jamaica with their father, who took them there when he became Colonial Administrator (1899–1904).[3] Sydney Olivier was a career civil servant in the Colonial Office, and on returning from his first posting as Colonial Secretary (chief administrator) in British Honduras (1890–1891),[4] the Olivier family settled in Limpsfield Chart, Surrey, purchasing a home named "Champions" which they had previously used as a holiday home. The three older girls, Margery, Bryn and Daphne were all home schooled. Later, the progressive coeducational boarding school, Bedales, in Sussex, became available for the youngest sister, Noël.[3] Among their neighbours were Edward and Constance Garnett and their son, David (“Bunny”) Garnett, and William and Margaret Pye, whose children included Edith, Ethel, Sybil and David, as well as Edward Pease and Octavia Hill in what became a hub of progressive Fabian intellectuals.[7][8] There, the four Olivier sisters led a free-spirited outdoor life, disdainful of social convention, which later made them very much aligned to the ethos of Rupert Brooke's Neo-pagans, building tree houses and referring to themselves as the Reivilo[b] tribe, and becoming very athletic in a manner that David Garnett compared to ancient Sparta. He also described them as "cruel as savages".[c][11][12] One woman, hired as a nursemaid to care for the children in 1892 was the future author Gertrude Dix, herself an emancipated woman who described her child rearing philosophy as "principles of freedom", allowing children to learn through experience rather than rules.[13]

The Oliviers
Photographic portrait of Brynhild's father, Sir Sydney Olivier
Sir Sydney Olivier
Olivier sisters 1900
Margery, Daphne, Brynhild, Noel Olivier 1900
Sir Sydney Olivier with his four daughters on horseback, in Jamaica 1903
Margery, Daphne, Brynhild, Noel & Sydney Olivier 1903
The Olivier sisters bathing at the beach in Cornwall 1914
Margery, Brynhild, Noel and Daphne Olivier 1914

Their father was frequently away on his duties in the Caribbean[3] and in 1907, Sir Sydney Olivier, as he had now become, left with Lady Margaret Olivier to take up the governorship of Jamaica. Margery, now 21 was put in charge of bringing up her three younger sisters.[5] All four daughters (and their parents) were considered striking in their appearance, but Brynhild was considered the beauty of the family.[6] Meanwhile the four sisters had developed a reputation that would later come to the attention of Rupert Brooke's very protective mother "The Oliviers! They'd do anything, those girls!".[3]

Of the four sisters, Bryn was the only one not to pursue higher education. Margery and Daphne went up to Newnham, while Noël completed a medical degree at the London School of Medicine for Women.[14] Margery read economics (1907–1911) and got a third in her tripos,[15] while Daphne completed hers in mediaeval and modern literature in 1913.[16]

Cambridge, Rupert Brooke and the Neo-pagans (1907–1912)[edit]


Bryn first caught the eye of Rupert Brooke on an undergraduate skiing excursion to Andermatt, Switzerland in 1907. Bryn was not an undergraduate but came with her older sister Margery, an important figure in the Fabian Society there. Brooke had gone up to Cambridge (King's) to read classics in 1906, was a member of the steering committee of the Fabians and President (1909–1910). In the evenings, the party put on performances of plays, which on this occasion was Oscar Wilde's The Importance of being Earnest, in which Bryn found herself playing Cecily to Brooke's Algernon. Although the women were closely chaperoned by Mrs Leon, a friend of Rupert's mother, he wrote excitedly back to his maternal cousin Erica Cotterill[d] of this encounter "There is One!...oh there is One!...aged twenty, very beautiful & nice & everything...I adore her".[19] A contemporary described her as "Most fetching...sweet, charming, gay. Very pale amber eyes".[20][21]


Shortly afterwards, Bryn joined her parents in Jamaica where she spent most of 1908, and in May of that year[22] Brooke met the rest of the Oliviers when the Cambridge Fabians gave a dinner in honour of Sir Sydney in May 1908, at which both he and Lady Margaret, together with Margery, Daphne and Noël attended, while Bryn remained in Jamaica. Brooke was seated opposite the fifteen year old Noël at dinner and assisted her picking up the pieces when she dropped her coffee cup.[23] Brooke was once more smitten.[24] Although Bryn was reputedly the most beautiful, it would be her younger sister Noël, wearing her school uniform, for whom Brooke really fell.[6]

In July 1908, Rupert Brooke's production of Milton's Comus at Cambridge roped in many of the Newnham women to assist, and Noël was also recruited to clean paint brushes. All four daughters attended the production, and Brooke decided he was in love with Noël, still at school. Brooke then took to turning up at Bedales, Limpsfield and wherever he knew the Olivier girls might be.[25] He and Noël began a flirtatious correspondence, becoming secretly engaged two years later. Their relationship became the source of many of his poems.[26][6] Jacques Raverat, on first encountering Bryn in 1909, described her as having "the startled beauty of a nymph taken by surprise", and formed the impression that Brooke was in love with all four sisters at once,[27] an impression that appeared to be reciprocated.[3] Brooke used his association with Margery in the Fabian Society to pursue the other daughters.[6] it was around this production that the loose association of friends, later dubbed Neo-pagans by the Stephen sisters, began to form around Brooke. The core group or inner circle being the four Olivier sisters, Justin Brooke, Jacques Raverat, Gwen and Frances Darwin and Ka Cox. The fringe members or outer circle included David Garnett, Geoffrey Keynes, Ethel and Sybil Pye, Dudley Ward, Godwin Baynes, and Ferenc Békássy.[28] Later it would include A. E. H. (Hugh) Popham (1889–1970),[29][30] a Cambridge diving champion,[e] and Bryn's maternal cousin, Rosalind Thornycroft.[f][33]


painting by Ethel Pye of the Neo-pagans camping on the Beaulieu River in 1910
Ethel Pye's depiction of the Beaulieu River camp 1910

In 1909, camping and the outdoor life, was coming into fashion, and for undergraduates replacing the reading parties,[34] such as the one Margery and Noël had attended at Bank in the New Forest at Easter that year. Baden-Powell had written his Scouting for Boys, and it had been incorporated into the curriculum of Noël's school. Brooke was much taken by it and organised camping trips for his circle, travelling extensively in the summer months in both England and France, where Raverat had a chateau at Prunoy. In July, David Garnett assembled the group at Penshurst, Kent, close to his and the Olivier residence at Limpsfield. The three younger Olivier sisters attended, but Margery was not present to keep a watchful eye, and Brooke invited himself. The Oliviers were noted for bathing nude ("wild swimming"), as illustrated by Gwen Raverat in her Bathers (see image),[35] in the river with the men, under cover of darkness and illuminated by bicycle lamps, an extension of the Bedalian spirit that separated the genders after they turned thirteen.[g] Bryn was usually the camp manager[36] and did much of the cooking, as depicted by Ethel Pye in her painting of the Beaulieu River site in 1910 (see image). Another one of Brooke's circle there was Godwin Baynes, then a medical student at King's and rowing blue. Brooke described the attraction Bryn felt for Baynes in his poem Jealousy.[37] Shortly after, Baynes proposed but was refused.[38] Baynes was not prepared to wait indefinitely, and at Easter 1910 he proposed to Rosalind Thorneycroft while rock climbing in Wales, and was accepted.[h][40][41] That summer Brooke also invited the Olivier sisters to his parent's summer home at Clevedon, on the Severn, much to his mother's consternation. In particular, Bryn demonstrated total disregard of etiquette and convention. As Margery noted "It's such a responsibility taking Bryn about...people always fall in love with her". Mrs Brooke's summary of the event was that "they are pretty, I suppose, but not all clever; they're shocking flirts and their manners are disgraceful".[42] As a core member of the Neo-pagans Bryn was one of those who thought up the group's solemn pact to reunite at Basel Station on May 1 1933, to start a new life, and reject growing old like their parents.[43]

Rupert Brooke with Brynhild Olivier in 1909
Rupert Brooke, Brynhild 1909
Brynhild playing Helen of Troy in 1910
Brynhild as Helen of Troy in Marlowe's Faustus 1910
Dudley Ward, Rupert Brooke, Margery Olivier, Dolly Rose, Brynhild Olivier and Edwin Pye, seated on the bank of the Cam river during May Week 1911
Dudley Ward, Rupert Brooke, Margery Olivier, Dolly Rose, Brynhild, Edwin Pye 1911
Brynhild Olivier and Justin Brooke camping at Clifford Bridge 1911
Brynhild and Justin Brooke 1911


By 1910, Bryn, now twenty-three realised she had no formal education or vocation and no immediate prospect of marriage. She had tried painting and for a while was apprenticed to a jeweller in Kent with a view to opening her own studio but found the work hard on her eyes, and incompatible with the long summer vacations she had become used to. Her mother was keen to keep her daughters close to her, and Bryn agreed to take Margery and Daphne’s place in Jamaica when they returned to England in October. Before she left, she confided her unhappiness to Hugh Popham, who incorrectly took it as an invitation to propose, but she was not yet ready for that.[44] Meanwhile Brooke was contemplating whether he could have both Bryn and Noël on their summer excursions, but it was the latter he would soon propose to.[45]

In August, the Neo-pagans staged a performance of Marlowe's Faustus at Cambridge, in which Bryn was cast as Helen of Troy in a low cut robe and hair highlighted with powdered gold (see illustration), Brooke as the Chorus, Ka Cox as Gluttony and Noël was an understudy.[45]


In May 1911, Bryn returned to England from Jamaica with her father. She had found the time in Jamaica frustrating because the native population would not pose nude for her to paint. She kept Popham at bay, declining his invitation to May Week, and writing affectionately to Brooke that it was time she got married.[25] During 1911 there was increasing interaction between the Neo-pagans and the Bloomsbury Group. A number of the men knew each other through Cambridge circles, in particular the Apostles, while Ka Cox had become friends with Virginia Stephen (later, Virginia Woolf) in January, [46] whose two brothers were both Apostles.[47] The camp at Clifford Bridge in Dartmoor in August 1911 was referred to as ‘Bloomsbury under canvas’.[48]


In 1912, Brooke was recovering from a mental breakdown, following his realisation that Ka Cox's interests might lie elsewhere, and despairing of Noël, was feeling suicidal and started to again consider Bryn as his primary love interest. He wrote to her while she was rock climbing in Wales and asked her to join him and take care of him, which she did, although he read far more into this than she did. They then returned to London together, joining Virginia Stephen, before travelling on to Limpsfield. At the time, Virginia commented that Bryn "has a glass eye - one can imagine her wiping it bright in the morning with a duster", referring to a perceived insensitivity. Noël was there, and together they pleaded with Brooke not to return to Germany. In particular, Bryn urged him to respect his "Duty as an English Poet" to remain in England. Brook's instinctive response was to propose to her.[49] Brooke went to Germany, in the end, with Ka Cox. There he received a firm refusal from Bryn fourty days later. At Bank she had confided to him that at nineteen she had fallen in love, but had "cauterised" her passion and retained a firm self control since.[50]

Later that year when the Neo-pagans met at Everleigh, Wiltshire, Brook again tried to engage Bryn's affections, but discovered that if she did go sailing with him she would bring Popham. Frustrated, she informed him that she and Hugh Popham were to be married.[51] Despite this news, Brooke unsuccessfully persisted in trying to get her to have an affair with him. Instead she went rock-climbing with Hugh,[52] becoming increasingly exasperated with Brooke's emotional immaturity, confiding to James Strachey "He's evidently got to get through this - what ever this is, by himself...One comes away feeling baffled and exhausted".[i][53]

Marriage (1912–1935)[edit]

When Bryn turned twenty five in 1912, she once more took stock of her life and came to a realisation that marriage and children were things she would need to consider. Her parents were returning to Jamaica, and she had more or less abandoned her dreams of a jewellery studio. Of the possible Neo-pagan suitors, she had turned down Hugh Popham in October 1912 and avoided him since. But now he had a secure job as an art historian in the Prints Department at the British Museum and a London flat, although two years her junior.[39] So she proposed to him in July, but he needed little encouragement to accept inquiring of her how she felt about "children and sexual matters".[54] Rupert Brooke was not the only one devastated by Bryn's engagement. Her sister Margery, who was starting to have delusional thoughts, had also considered Hugh Popham as a suitable husband.[55]

Brynhild Popham (1912–1924)[edit]

Brynhild in early years of first marriage
Brynhild ca. 1912–1914

After an engagement of two and a half months, Bryn and Hugh were married on October 3, 2012, not without some misgivings. Her parents were in Jamaica and did not attend, nor did Brooke, who instead sent her a letter bewailing all their lost opportunities. The wedding took place at a registry office, and the reception at Richelieu, Oxford Street, before departing by train for the Continent. After their honeymoon in Holland and Belgium, the Pophams settled in Regent Square, Bloomsbury, close to both Hugh's work at the British Museum and Noël's work at the London School of Medicine for Women and where they entertained both Neo-pagans and Bloomsbury but continued to attend the summer camps.[56]

In World War I, Hugh Popham enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service, later transferring to the Royal Flying Corps. In 1916 he was posted to Port Said, Egypt. Meanwhile, Bryn's sister Margery was suffering from increasing ill health, and was under the care of Dr Caesar Sherrard and advised quiet country life at Tatsfield, where his colourful young nephew, Raymond Sherrard (1893–1974) could keep a watchful eye on her. It was there that Bryn first met Raymond,[j] a Cambridge graduate and scientist at the Agricultural Economics Research Institute, Oxford University, who cut a dashing figure on his motorcycle, and both sisters formed an attachment. After the war, Bryn and her children moved to Draycott in the Cotswolds, close to where Sherrard was then living, their father visiting only at weekends, and began an affair with Sherrard.[1] Her daughter described the relationship as one in which Bryn found her husband rather dry and his love for her, "dumb and beseeching". Virginia Woolf also commented that it was obvious what was happening to the marriage.[k] Although the Pophams eventually moved to Ramsden, close to her parents and Margery, the couple divorced in 1924, and in 1926 Hugh Popham married Brynhild's cousin, Rosalind Baynes (1891–1973), which Bryn described as "bloody unenterprising".[l][39]

Bryn and Hugh Popham had three children;[2]

Anne Olivier married art historian and writer Quentin Bell, a second generation member of the Bloomsbury Group, and edited the five volumes of Virginia Woolf's diaries.[57][58][59]

Brynhild Sherrard (1923–1935)[edit]

In 1924, Bryn married Sherrard, eight years younger than her. Their affair had caused a scandal, and when Raymond was cited as a co-respondent in her divorce, he was dismissed from his employment. Subsequently they took possession of a farm at Rushden, Hertfordshire. They had few resources, Bryn having only fifty pounds a year from her father, and Raymond, who had no savings, was not accepted by her family. The farm did not prosper and they went bankrupt, while Bryn ran a milk round. In the 1930s, they again became bankrupt and G. B. Shaw had to help them out financially to save the farm,[3] raising one thousand pounds together with H. G. Wells. With this, Bryn purchased Nunnington Farmhouse at West Wittering, Sussex.[m][61]

Bryn and Raymond Sherrard had three further children, including;[2]

Final illness and death (1933–1935)[edit]

Churchyard at West Wittering
West Wittering Parish Churchyard

Bryn became ill in late 1933 and developed aplastic anaemia, that was initially diagnosed as lymphadenoma based on lymphadenopathy in her neck, and treated with X-rays with no improvement. At the time she was so poor, she would walk the seven miles into Chichester for appointments, Raymond being still an undischarged bankrupt. In 1934, Noël[n] and their father decided to intervene by sending Bryn to the Rigiblick Clinic in Zurich, but there was nothing they could do for her, and she died in St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London on January 13, 1935 at the age of 47. She was laid to rest in the churchyard at West Wittering. [63] In her will, Bryn left everything to her father and to Noël.[o] Her estate was listed as ₤5,215 3s. [64]


After Bryn’s death, Noël, as the new owner, evicted Raymond and the children and used Nunnington as a holiday home. He eventually remarried and died in 1974.[65]


  1. ^ An honorific style of the daughters and sons of a baron
  2. ^ Reivilo - Olivier spelled backwards
  3. ^ Hence the original title of Sarah Watling's biography of the sisters, Noble Savages[9] eventually published as The Olivier Sisters. A Biography[10]
  4. ^ Erica Cotterill: Rupert Brooke's mother was Mary Ruth Cotterill,[17] whose brother was the author, Charles Clement Cotterill. Charles Clement Cotterill's daughter was Erica Cotterill[18]
  5. ^ Hugh Popham was one of Brooke's friends at King's
  6. ^ Rosalind Thorneycroft (1891–1973) was the daughter of Agatha Cox and Sir William Hamo Thornycroft[31] Rosalind was the inspiration for D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, as her mother had inspired Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles[32]
  7. ^ Noël characteristically flouted the convention by diving in full view of everyone at a Bedalian camp
  8. ^ They eventually married in September 1913[39]
  9. ^ Letter, 4 September 2012
  10. ^ Francis Raymond George Nason Sherrard
  11. ^ Woolf to Jacques Raverat, Letters III, 93
  12. ^ Rosalind Baynes (née Thornycroft) was the daughter of Agatha Cox and had married the psychoanalyst Helton Godwin Baynes in 1913. They separated in 1920, following which she had an affair with D H Lawrence in Florence, and was divorced in 1921
  13. ^ A Grade II Listed Building[60]
  14. ^ Noël qualified as a physician in 1917[62]
  15. ^ Bryn’s family persuaded her to change her will three days before she died


  1. ^ a b Levy 2016.
  2. ^ a b c Lundy 2017, p. 24033 § 240322
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Innes 1998, p. 185
  4. ^ a b Mariz 2004.
  5. ^ a b Delany 1987, p. 27.
  6. ^ a b c d e Innes 1998, p. 186
  7. ^ Withers 2016.
  8. ^ Rowbotham 2016, p. 78.
  9. ^ Cowdrey 2017.
  10. ^ Watling 2019.
  11. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 40–41.
  12. ^ Fowler 2008, p. 27
  13. ^ Rowbotham 2016.
  14. ^ Delany 1987, p. 198.
  15. ^ Marshall 1996, p. 174
  16. ^ Lewis 2009, p. 779
  17. ^ King's Cambridge: Ruth 2018.
  18. ^ King's Cambridge: Erica 2018.
  19. ^ Jones 2014, p. 74
  20. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 27–28.
  21. ^ Caesar 1993, pp. 24–25
  22. ^ Delany 1987, p. 34.
  23. ^ Chainey 1995, p. 211
  24. ^ Jones 2014, p. 83
  25. ^ a b Delany 1987, p. 127.
  26. ^ Harris 1991.
  27. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 73–74.
  28. ^ Delany 1987, p. 41.
  29. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 195–196.
  30. ^ Janus 2008.
  31. ^ Victorian Artists 2018.
  32. ^ Jansen 2003, pp. 28–29
  33. ^ Delany 1987, p. 88.
  34. ^ Delany 1987, p. 32.
  35. ^ Lowe 2011.
  36. ^ Delany 1987, Note to illustration pp. 174–175.
  37. ^ Brooke 1909.
  38. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 666–69.
  39. ^ a b c Sorensen 2018.
  40. ^ Lawrenson 2017.
  41. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 103–104.
  42. ^ Delany 1987, p. 70.
  43. ^ Delany 1987, p. 71.
  44. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 104–105.
  45. ^ a b Delany 1987, p. 91.
  46. ^ Delany 2015, p. 130.
  47. ^ Lubenow 1998, p. 240
  48. ^ Delany 2015, p. 141.
  49. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 173–176.
  50. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 178–179.
  51. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 187–189.
  52. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 190–192.
  53. ^ Delany 1987, p. 195.
  54. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 189–190.
  55. ^ Delany 1987, p. 229.
  56. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 198, 230.
  57. ^ Woolf 1977–1984.
  58. ^ Howe 2013.
  59. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 230–231.
  60. ^ BLB 1981.
  61. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 231–232.
  62. ^ Delany 1987, p. 234.
  63. ^ Delany 1987, pp. 232–233.
  64. ^ Archives 2018.
  65. ^ Delany 1987, p. 233.