I first discovered Philip Oyler through his book, The Generous Earth (pub 1961), bought at a book fair in the mid 1970s. I was captivated by his account of life in France between the wars and just after - especially the traditional french way of cultivating the land in a holistic or complete way of life to support the farmer, his family and the local community.
A few years later, in the late 1970s, I found myself in France in Lot and in a village near the river Dordogne in a commune that Oyler must have known well. At that time there were few modern roads into the area and it was then relatively unspoiled by mass tourism and the exploitation of les touristes. The village looked run-down, many houses were empty and in a poor state of repair but there was a thriving butchers shop (this was before I became vegetarian), a PTT (Bureau de Poste) the pattisserie van came round once a week and so did the fresh fish van which stopped outside the barn where I was staying at the time.
Life appeared somewhat difficult for some of the inhabitants - there were few jobs for the men - a small quarry on the outskirts of the commune provided some jobs but generally the people seemed calm, satisfied and contented. There was an air of peace in the commune that I had not experienced in England for some time and I found the way of life of these people, far from Paris and the hustle and bustle of modern life, refreshing.
I soon got to know the villagers and they me. The door of the barn was always unlocked and open so anyone who felt like it could and did wander in to look and see what l’etranger anglais was doing.
While staying there, I met an English woman (originally from the Sloan Square area of London) who lived over the river from Carennac. I told her about my interest in Philip Oyler and she told me that she had met him and that he had lived near Puybrun (a village a few kilometres away) where, during the fifties and sixties, he’d had quite a few visitors - young girls (she said) mainly - and he’d been considered something of a ‘guru’ attracting quite a few young people who stayed for several weeks.
In the early 1970s he became ill and was sent to the sanatorium in St Cere but became worse and was taken to a ‘special hospital’ south of St Cere where he died.
In 1999, I made the forerunner of this website and put some images of the commune on a page with a request for anyone who had heard of Philip Oyler to contact me. For years there was nothing on the web about him. Then Paul Roberts in America contacted me with some information and links to information connected with Oyler, which reawoke my interest and I did another search and found some more articles and information. A general interest in Oyler’s ideas was beginning to grow and this page is the result. Everything I know about Oyler is or will be on this page. I will state whether the things are ‘facts’, hearsay or anecdotal. Maybe others will add to what is here and gradually a picture might be built up of the intelligent and aware person that Philip Oyler certainly was. I still find it surprising that so few people know anything about him.
In the 1908 - 1929 Adyar Bulletin of the Theosophical Society see copy here (press the ‘back’ button to return). Philip Oyler is listed as giving two talks ‘Of Love of Life 1 and 2’ in April and May 1913. He was giving his talks at the same time as C W Leadbeater and also Annie Besant. It is possible that J Krishnamurti was in Adyar with Annie Besant and C W Leadbeater at that time (I’ll check this further). If Krishnamurti was at Adyar when Oyler visited then Oyler must have been a well-known, honest and trustworthy person at that time. See later about my question concerning his present ‘unknown’ status.
Grez sur Loing, near Fontainebleau and around 65 kilometres south-east of Paris, attracted many notable people - many of the Impressionist painters including Sisley who painted scenes of the Loing river there, G I Gurdjieff who had the Prieurie there which attracted many famous people - and also the composer Frederick Delius and his wife, Jelka - and also, later still, Eric Fenby, Delius’s amanuenses.
I knew that in the early 1930s, Oyler was restoring an estate near Grez sur Loing, and was a friend of Delius but all my information then was sketchy.
In march 2013 I was contacted by a past student of Eric Fenby who mentioned that Oyler had had a daughter and her name was Soldanella and this set me off again looking for information.
I discovered that Oyler had been married for a time at least. His wife was Elsa Giöbel, a Swedish painter.
Philip Oyler was either improving or managing an estate not far from Grez-sur-Loing on behalf of the millionaire owner Theo Pitcairn, who was also a friend of Delius. It was probably Theo Pitcairn who introduced Oyler to the Delius couple.
Oyler met the Delius couple around 1932 (maybe because of Oyler’s horticultural interests; the Delius garden was large and fruitful) and became a close friend. While there, Oyler wrote an article, ‘Frederick Delius in his Garden.’ in which he describes Delius’s house as, “...an extended plain front with three storeys, the top one having dormers. It is distinguished from the other houses by being much longer, by having all its window shutters painted green instead of the prevailing grey, and by having at intervals rambler roses climbing up it and adding, when in bloom, some pleasing masses of colour against the solid stone walls.” Oyler also took at least one photograph of the house.
Toward the end of his life Delius became ill and could no longer transcribe his music. Eric Fenby in England heard about this and offered his services freely. He went there in 1928 and remained with Delius until Delius died in 1934.
Fenby states, in his book, Delius as I knew him, that he met and liked Oyler, who was living in a house in Grez-sur-Loing, and they became good friends. Oyler’s daughter, Soldanella, was also in Grez-sur-Loing and she and Fenby became close friends. In Fenby's own words, “Delius thought I was paying too much attention to a very charming young English girl who was known by the lovely name of Soldanella and who happened to be staying for a short while with her father, a great friend of mine, in the village.”
I think that, for Fenby, talking with Philip Oyler was probably a welcome diversion from the pressures of working with Delius and also, Oyler was more ‘religious’ (in the popular sense) than Delius, who could be quite outspoken, and Fenby was quite ‘religious’ too.
However, Delius warned Fenby never to get married as it would interfere with his musical creativity so Fenby and Soldanella became engaged secretly on the bridge at Grez sur Loing. Another reason for the secrecy was that Soldanella’s mother was ill and they did not wish to upset her. Soldanella was expected to take care of the family in the event of the death of her mother - something she eventually had to do until 1972.
Delius died in 1934. It had been his wish to be buried in England but as Jelka herself was quite ill at the time Delius was buried in the local church-yard. Later, after Jelka recovered a little, his body was moved to England. Jelka died there in 1935.
What Oyler did then is unknown at the moment. He would have been around 50 years of age in 1935. He could have stayed to run the estate for Theo Pitcairn or he might have moved back to England. It seems unlikely that he would have stayed in France during the hostilities of the 1939-1945 war.
For more information about Eric Fenby and Delius see his book, Delius as I knew him - especially the 1981 edition and also the Stephen Lloyd (ed) book, Fenby on Delius. Many thanks to the student of Eric Fenby for the useful information.
The name ‘Soldanella’ seemed slightly familiar to me. It took me some time to remember where I had seen it. It is in Oyler’s book. He dedicates The Generous Earth simply ‘To Soldanella’. He must have been quite fond of her.
Note Oyler's association with the Kinship in Husbandry group in 1941.
The Kinship in Husbandry group was the forerunner to the organic movement. It was formed in 1941 by a group of individuals including Oyler and his associate and fellow traveller through France, Lord Northbourne. The members of the group were concerned about the growing use of artificial fertilizers and modern farming methods controlled by financial institutions rather than people who knew and cared about healthy soil and nutritious food plants.
Although the tone of this is patronizing (and it is possibly incorrect) it is another small piece in the jig-saw puzzle, “Oyler next turns up in the 1940s near Sarlat in the Dordogne where he buys a farm and discovers a vanished pastoral world and becomes something of an advocate for the soil, for an acre of land for every countryman and other Utopian ideas. His books The Generous Earth and Son of the Generous Earth are about his experiences there. He was a neighbour of Delius whom he saw often and his last recorded writing is a piece on the great composer published in 1972.”
So where was Oyler in the 1940 - 1941 period during the war? Was he in England helping to form the Kinship in Husbandry group or living near the river Dordogne?
If the date of Oyler’s last recorded writing was correct (1972) then Oyler must have been taken ill fairly suddenly because he died in 1973.
There are still many questions to answer. What about his family - are any of his family alive in England? The name ‘Oyler’ could be Dutch or German. Oyler states in his book that he can trace his family roots back to Provence. It could be that his maternal family came from Provence and his paternal family (and name) came from Holland or Germany?
Another question that refuses to go away is, ‘Why do so few people know about Philip Oyler?’ Did he deliberately want to keep a low profile or has information about him and his interests been deliberately removed from public circulation? If he was in a group campaigning against the taking over of agriculture by large commercial companies wanting to control agriculture purely for profit then maybe the large commercial companies suppressed his findings and observations? It has happened before, with Tesla’s discovery of ‘free’ electrical energy.
Around the year-end, 2013, I was contacted by Dr Juliet Jain telling me that her mother, Juanita Jain, had visited Oyler’s house near Puybrun, in 1959. She had written a letter to Oyler and he had invited her to go down and stay with him for a while. Staying in Philip Oyler’s house near Puybrun was, possibly, one of the highlights of her life and she is, most probably, one of the ‘girls’ that the woman I met in Carennac had told me about. Here is her account of her stay of over 50 years ago:
After a stressful journey by train, boat, trains again and taxi, my 9 years old daughter and I arrived at the tiny hamlet where Phillip Oyler lived. Pauline, Oyler’s ‘hostess’, put us to bed with hot-water bottles. The bed was galleon-shaped and made of dense walnut wood, walnut and plum trees being prolific in the area.
When we were awake we were enchanted, the balmy clear air, the tranquility and attractiveness of the old house made me feel renewed and happy. Philip was always called Peter and he introduced himself at breakfast – I see him as distinctly in 2014 as in 1959. He was a tall, spare man and looked to be in his late sixties and retired from farming.
Peter was affable. He knew that I had read his book, The Generous Earth and that he had been a farmer at Plaxtol in Kent, which I knew about as I had been raised in Kent. He always wore a bright pink, pure silk shirt, cords and open sandals on his enormous feet. He had a beard and grey hair.
Pauline was a kind, cultivated and practical lady. Although Peter called her ‘hostess’ she was a house keeper and cook but always presented a lady-like appearance and was kind to us both.
The breakfast table was a long, wooden kitchen table on which were offered milky coffee, wholemeal wheat and rye loaf, honey from bees feeding on vine blossom, butter and fruit. My daughter, Susan, had never tasted melon but Peter soon managed to persuade her to try it and from that time she liked it. To cut the loaf, it was placed at the table-end by the drawer and sliced in that way. The honey was unusual and tangy. All the meals provided during our stay were wholesome and tasty and the wine was made in the cave.
Each morning Susan and I had the task of breaking the crust on the wine vats, where the must had bubbled up to form a solid ‘scum’. In the corner was a still in which fermented small, sweet grapes, a mist of fruit flies hovering above. As well as breaking the crust of the wine barrels it was my task to press the grapes in a large vat. To do this you had to be fairly tall (I was 5 feet 5½ inches) in order to push the tool to the bottom. (I can’t remember the name of this instrument) but it was shaped like an enormous garlic press, with a flat-ended club. The container was called a ‘comporte’.
I can’t remember what Peter did with his time. I believe he was writing or out in his small Citroen car of 1936 vintage which he had just bought from a showroom in England.
There were no buses and scarcely any traffic on the lanes. It was decidedly rural France – no tourists – one had to speak french if only haltingly. I had some interesting chats with the lady in the only shop a little way out.
The washer-woman would call in her pony and trap. She would arrive ringing a bell, collect the washing and scrub it clean on a washboard in the river.
Another interesting feature of the village was the shoeing of oxen and sometimes cows used for ploughing. Not a tractor in sight. It was another world from the suburbs of London.
There was a composting earth lavatory at the end of the garden. One tossed walnut sawdust in each time it was used.
Philip believed that we could, in England, live by home-grown produce. The farmers had very small farms from about 10 acres to 20 acres. Everything was not grown in one place. For instance, the grapes needed a special soil which was usually on a hillside, so maybe part of their farm was a little distant. Most of the plums were small and sweet but the larger plums were spread out on large nets to dry into prunes, likewise, grapes were dried in the sun – half-way to raisins and made into a special sweet wine.
The prolific walnut trees supplied the wood for furniture and the nuts were made into a liqueur called crème de noix and which was intensely dark brown. This was drunk with very light fluffy pancakes (pêtes des nonnes) or Nun’s farts. These were all local specialities although crème de noix was available in wine shops. It all seems so unreal now, like a rural idyll which had all but disappeared in England
At certain times of the year, oxen and some ploughing cows were shod. This was performed on a grassy triangle with a kind of gallows-like structure and a big leather hoist. This was placed around the belly of the beast and unlike horse-shoeing, the animal was hoisted upon high with legs dangling. Owing to the cloven hoof, the shoes were forged into a different shape, a bit like a modern flip-flop with the metal piece enclosing the gap.
There were plenty of discarded shoes laying around but I have lost mine over the years. We were shown around the village/hamlet and peered into cellars and pigstyes draped in cobwebs, the owner referring to them as ‘lace curtains’. I don’t remember horses being used and apart from a few ponies and donkeys for transporting vegetables, etc., I can’t remember seeing another car except Peter’s.
Peter was attentive in a fatherly way and informed us about interesting places to visit by bicycle. Sarlat with it’s market and old buildings was one. Susan and I hired a bicycle from Bretenoux; she sat on the back on a cushion, and we made a shaky visit over the hills to the caves of Gouffre de Padirac.
The nearest village was Carennac, a charming place with tiled pointed roofs. Some churches in the region had painted walls, one with a blond Eve and her Adam. The whole countryside was interesting and attractive, especially the nearby River Dordogne which was embedded with fools gold. The water was crystal clear and fast running. The air of the Dordogne had a lovely atmosphere, early mist and warm, not boiling days.
We found the french people friendly and helpful. Peter and Pauline were the only English people we saw there. I think that Peter was a real ‘one-off’ personality as they say. He did his own thing but was kindly. I know nothing of his family or personal life. I didn’t ask and he never voluntarily disclosed anything but he did tell me that when he died he would like the Tennyson poem to be read about a ship going to its own port with him as a passenger.
My notes to the above:
What a lovely image of Philip Oyler in his pink, silk shirt, brown cords and sandals. Reading this takes me back to my time in that area in the late 1970s, just as things were beginning to change but, in my opinion, not for the better. Many thanks to Juliet Jain for contacting me and to Juanita Jain for her time in writing her memories. I appreciate your help.
Born in 1879 at Sutton Valence (historically Town Sutton or Sutton Hastings), a village some 8km SE of Maidstone, Kent, England. ‘On a Kentish Farm’ according to his book.
Location 1913(?) - possibly Wales and possibly teaching (more later when researched).
Married: Elsa Giöbel, Swedish painter. Date unknown. Divorced in the late 1930s.
Location from the 1930s to early 1950s - apart from him living in Grez sur Loing near Fenby and Delius - is unknown at the moment. However, he could have moved south to Lot or the Dordogne region during the 1940s although there were hostilities happening in that region.
Location: Lived in Puybrun from the 1950s until becoming ill 1972-1973.
Died: 24 Feb 1973, ‘special hospital’, south of St Cere, Lot, France (more later when researched).
Occupations: farmer, estate manager and restorer, writer. School-teacher (so far unverified).
If you have any thoughts, observations about this or any information or even an image of Philip Oyler then please contact me.
Apologies for the unstructured nature of this ‘Work in Progress’ page.