IS it unfair to claim that Ireland only began showing any interest in our greatest designer, Eileen Gray, after her Dragon’s Chair sold for €21.9m in 2009? Before that she was the preserve of a few eccentric aesthetes and design fanatics. The only public figure to have acclaimed her in Ireland was not an architect, nor an art-historian, nor even a designer, but an archaeologist, Dr Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum, who regards her as one of the three greatest minds of 20th century Ireland, alongside William Butler Yeats and James Joyce. Her importance and influence on the world stage was no less than theirs, so why then have we ignored her here at home?
Gray was born and raised on the outskirts of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, but left the country as soon as she came of age, immersing herself in the avant-garde society of Paris and London, becoming one of the pioneering giants of modernism whose work, 30 years after her death, is still considered to be the very essence of the Modern. She is one of the most influential furniture designers and architects of the early 20th century — definitely the most important of her gender. However, while most people are familiar with her Adjustable Table and the Bibendum Chair (one of the most recognisable items of contemporary furniture), she is still neglected in her home country.
My brother Ruán and I set about exploring why as part of a TG4 documentary on Brownswood, the Gothic-revival monstrosity on the banks of the Slaney built by Eileen’s mother, Lady Eveleen Pounden Gray, on top of the family’s elegant Georgian farmhouse. The house clearly represents the grandiose values of Irish Protestant ascendancy, but surely that alone couldn’t account for the disregard shown to Gray in Ireland? After all, we found it in our hearts to celebrate Protestant writers and parliamentarians.
Joan Bergin, Emmy-award-winning costume designer, believes it may be down to her gender. “I sometimes wonder because she was a woman was she taken as a gifted amateur. At that time, although men and women were working together as architects, in design the man’s name was always on the door.”
British Vogue in 1917 claimed that Gray “stands alone, unique, the champion of a singularly free method of expression,” but she was up against the pantheon of male designers: Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, etc. Listening to Bergin talk with such affection about her, it’s clear how few great female icons we have. She was a true maverick who believed that “to create, one must first question everything”. Bergin regards her “as important in the field of great Irish figures as Beckett and Yeats”.
Brownswood can be seen as both a key to why Gray was so ignored and the spark that made her turn her back on Ireland. To understand why her family isolated itself from the surrounding community in this forbidding house, one must look to her great-grand uncle, John Pounden, who died violently protecting Enniscorthy from the 1798 revolutionaries. After the uprising the Poundens no longer felt secure and their isolation was only compounded when John Pounden’s nephew, Jeremiah Pounden, married a woman of Scottish nobility, ninth heir to the throne. To further heighten this separation, Jeremiah’s daughter, Lady Gray (Eileen’s mother) insisted on using her Scottish title and built this ostentatious mansion. Eileen, with her intrinsic loathing of pretension, disliked the house as much as the community had come to distrust her family.
While this may explain Gray’s outsider perspective, it does not account for the source of her vision and genius. She studied painting at the Slade School of Art in London, but didn’t stay long — flitting back and forth to the Académie Julian and the École Colarossi in Paris, until finally she stumbled upon the ancient Asian practice of lacquer-making, and began an apprenticeship under a Japanese master-craftsman.
This was the first clear manifestation of her resolutely pioneering attitude, parting ways with her contemporaries, who either ignored crafts or restricted themselves to the fashionable practices of weaving, jewellery-making and embroidery. Hers was always a solitary practice, sparked by an internal vision that had little to do with what was in vogue — a bold, exploratory originality. She spent four years studying lacquer-work, and a further three experimenting before she held her first exhibition of decorative panels at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1913, aged 35. It received some favourable reviews, but was mostly regarded as too avant-garde. The outbreak of WW1 derailed her ambitions and she became an ambulance driver, further stoking her love of machines and motors — she was a keen pilot and racing driver.
After the war, Gray turned to furniture design — creating chairs, tables, lamps and carpets, and eventually opening a bijou boutique in Paris, Jean Desert, to sell her work and that of other female artists. Her sudden move to architecture can only be explained as the continued searching of a hyper-creative mind.
Gray was a self-taught architect: “I started really by myself, sort of making plans of buildings,” she said. Without the restrictions of a formal training, she was free to re-imagine the form and function of buildings in her unique fashion.
Yvonne Farrell of internationally-acclaimed Grafton Architects, talks of Gray’s ability to “create tailor-made spaces. She was interested in surprise. Each piece of her houses are multi-functional. Architecture is not just a series of enclosures, it’s a series of experiences. Gray was able to control the understanding and experience of space as an architect like a choreographer instructs a dancer. She was able to hold space in a choreographic way.”
This is best seen in E-1027, her startlingly modern house on the Cote d’Azur — a clear white L-shaped, flat-roofed building of exquisite simplicity, with floor-to-ceiling and ribbon windows and a spiral stairway reminiscent of a Norman keep. Words cannot describe the impact of this house on the senses — a collection of tiny nooks, broad spaces and narrow gangways, it forces you to move through it like a dancer through a maze. It is as much a work of Irish genius as Newgrange, but was so neglected that it was almost a ruin when the French government declared it a National Cultural Monument in 1999 and set about its renovation. The meticulous restoration project will finally be completed this year and for the first time in decades the world will be able to see this mesmerising building that shook the architectural status quo and so entranced Le Corbusier that he built a shack beside it so that he could spend his last decade on earth gazing at its brilliance.
Perhaps our problem with Gray is that the Irish mind has always been more literally than visually attuned. We simply did not have the capacity to appreciate her. Whatever the reason, it is about time we make amends for our neglect. In 1976, the final year of her life, she wrote poignantly to the then director of the national museum, John Teehan, “I should have liked so much to have something permanent in Ireland but I suppose it is too late now.” It was a full 25 years before Dr Pat Wallace finally opened a permanent exhibition of her work at Collins Barracks, the only honour of its kind bestowed on any Irish person by the National Museum of Ireland.
The recent announcement of a major biopic starring Winona Ryder as Eileen Gray signals that her moment may at last have come. If you haven’t been to the Collins Barracks exhibition of her work, or the display honouring her in Enniscorthy Museum, now may be the time. You will not be disappointed.
Eileen Gray agus Brownswood: Cé A Chónaigh I Mo Theachsa, TG4, 10pm, Thursday, March 8, (repeated 9pm, Sunday, March 11)