The 1920s were a time of revolution in the arts as well as in politics. While Ireland was battling for freedom from Great Britain, on the continent artists were battling for freedom from old forms and aesthetic values. One of the leaders of the Modernist movement in art is too often overlooked, perhaps because she was an Irish woman who was way ahead of her time. Born near Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Eileen Gray was an artistic visionary in the right place at the right time. Born into a wealthy family with a titled mother, her passion for art and design led her to an artistic revolution in Paris long before the Easter Uprising in Ireland.
Gray’s parents enjoyed art, and they supported her interest and talent. She studied at the Slade School of Art in London. The year 1900 was a turning point for the young artist. Her father died that year, and her mother took her to the world’s fair in Paris, where she fell in love with Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s art nouveau creations. Two years later, she moved to Paris with friends from Slade and the art world has never been the same.
While she went on to be a leading modernist architect, Gray’s early work focused on interiors. At the start of her career, she made a splash with her work in lacquered furniture. Although she was already somewhat established and getting commissions when World War I broke out, Gray was passionate about her art and spent most of the war in London studying lacquering with her mentor Seizo Sugawara. Gray pioneered the use of chrome in furniture, and was intrigued by the challenge of making a very small living space both extremely efficient and beautiful. Her furniture was functional first, yet also avant garde, as were the houses she designed. Imitations of her chrome and glass table and her innovative chairs are still popular today.
Although she was a contemporary of big names including Le Corbusier, who appreciated and encouraged her work, Gray never received the attention they did, and she marched always to her own drummer. She never married, but had long term relationships with the French torch singer Marie-Louise Damien (stage name Damia) and the Romanian architect and writer Jean Badovici. In her later years, Gray became somewhat reclusive, but she remained busy with her art nearly until her death in 1976 at age 98.
Today, examples of Gray’s work are on permanent exhibit with information about her life at the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks near the Phoenix Park and the River Liffey. Admission to the National Museum is free, and it also houses other exhibits on decorative arts and history such as clothing, military uniforms and history with an exhibit on the 1916 Uprising, and Irish silver. The museum is a great way to spend a rainy day alone or with the family getting up close and personal with Irish history.