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Tuesday 17 September 2019

Eileen Gray lived her long life an exile from Brownswood

ge David Medcalf
ge David Medcalf

By David Medcalf

Not everyone has €40 (or even €39.95) to spend lightly on a book but anyone with an interest in Wexford may care to consider a shrewd little investment with Irish Academic Press.

Turn to page 20 of 'Eileen Gray : Her Work and her World' by Jennifer Goff to find an illustration which is almost worth the money on its own.

The sepia toned photograph shows a little girl clutching a posy of flowers on her lap, the very picture of childish innocence. The image is simple and timeless and perfect. The subject could just as well have been sitting in a studio last week - but in fact the picture was captured back in 1883.

As it turned out, life went on to be anything other than simple for this little girl, who became one of the world's great designers. Eileen Gray's life brought her from a well-to-do Victorian upbringing in Brownswood to independent old age in a Paris apartment.

Leaf on through the pages to take a look at the flouncy dresses and ornate bonnets which Eileen sported as an elegant member of the Protestant ascendancy whose family had a house in London as well as their mansion in Enniscorthy.

Her sense of fashion morphed into the flapper chic of the 1920 and on to the simple sweater and slacks which she sported at home as she hit the age of 95.

The first photo, the one on page 20, harks back to when to when artist in the making was just five years old and it is one among hundreds of pictures contained in this 411-page tome.

They range from shots of the Gray children tobogganing in the Alps to pioneering drawing for buildings and on to photographs of her output such as the revolutionary 1926 table made from chromium plated steel tubing.

Jennifer Goff has done well to find such a wealth of illustrative material relevant to someone who set about deliberately destroying many of the records.

Gray has seeped into widespread popular consciousness in the new millennium as the maker of chairs for which modern collectors are prepared to pay millions of dollars.

While she was happy to allow her furniture and rugs, lacquered screens and light fittings to survive, anything left on paper was likely to be used for lighting the fire.

She was also very reticent about telling interviewers much about the person behind the iconic chairs and the ground breaking villa beside the Mediterranean. At least novelist Maeve Binchy, in her guise as a journalist, coaxed some insights from the great woman shortly before her death in 1976, but this was an exception.

The book emerges just as the cinema-going public prepares to enjoy 'The Price of Desire', which will present a story of the designer's love unusual bisexual love life.

The sales of 'Eileen Gray: Her Work and her World' may benefit from the association with the movie, though it is far from being a work of titillation and mass entertainment.

Jennifer Goff is well placed to tackle the serious side of her subject with academic authority as curator of the Gray collection at the Collins Barracks campus of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

The writer has strayed far beyond the museum at Benburb Street in compiling this biography, a task that has taken her at least 10 years of meticulous scholarship.

The list of acknowledgements reflects the breadth enquiry required, taking the author from Ireland to dig around the archives of institutions in Britain, France and the United States.

Goff uses the opportunity make two strong points in Gray's defence. She has no need to press the case for Eileen Gray as a ground-breaking furniture maker, photographer and interior designer. On those scores, the reputation is unassailable.

However, the author feels compelled to underline her conviction that Eileen Gray should be taken seriously as an architect - one who was largely self-taught rather than brought up through the institutes of the profession.

Though the creation of E1027, the seaside villa near Nice, the designer underlined her architectural prowess, and Goff gives no credit to the any begrudgers.

The other issue on which the writer is adamant is that Gray was Irish and remained Irish throughout her 98 years, though she was more cosmopolitan in her background, upbringing and outlook than most.

On her mother's side, she was a descended (on the wrong side of the marriage blanket) from a Scottish king. The family had a house in London and she spent a short time on the roll of a German school in Dresden.

Her father resided in Italy during his later years. The youngest of his five children was educated at the Slade School of Fine Art, again in London, and she passed most of her adult life in France.

Yet Eileen was born in Brownswood House and remained in love with the place, for all that she was appalled by the changes to the building made by her sister and her brother-in-law. She was Irish and proud of it.

The house with its stables for 20 horses was auctioned off to the heath service in 1926 and now houses Meánscoil Charman, the Irish-language secondary school. No doubt a copy of 'Eileen Gray: Her Work and her World' will find its way into the school library.

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