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Eileen Gray’s underrated paintings

She is best known as an architect and designer, but her paintings anticipated pop art

Michael Watts | September 23rd 2015

What a year this has been in the afterlife of Eileen Gray, the Anglo-Irish architect and designer. In October, during Frieze Week, the Mayfair gallery Osborne Samuel will launch London’s first commercial exhibition of her little-seen paintings, collages and photographs. It follows this summer’s public opening of her restored masterpiece, the house cryptically named E.1027, in the south of France, and also anticipates “The Price of Desire”, a long-awaited Irish film of Gray’s complicated relationship with Le Corbusier, whose vaguely lewd murals defaced (though some say enhanced) her famous villa. Factor in an engrossing documentary called “Gray Matters”, together with a huge, new scholarly appraisal by Jennifer Goff, and interest in Gray could scarcely be greater.

To all of this, Gray’s philosophical response would have been, “Mais, c’est absurde”. She was a woman of old-fashioned reticence, who prized whatever was chic and proportionate, and she would have been bemused by her sanctification, especially now in Ireland, where she grew up. In fact, she spent the majority of her life in France, and died in Paris in 1976, aged 98. By then, she had endured several decades of utter obscurity, and borne the heavy loss of works looted or destroyed under the German occupation. Yet in her frail, final years, when she was almost blind and trembling with Parkinson’s, she had once again become a fashionable cult, a name deeply associated with a pre-war era of exquisite rugs, avant-garde furniture and art-deco lacquering.

The many worshippers at her home on the rue Bonaparte included the distinguished BBC film-maker Peter Adam, who became her biographer and the guardian of her legacy. It is Adam who has found or contributed the artworks being shown in London, as well as the personal ephemera on display, which includes letters, her architect’s work table and a plan chest she designed, with a drawer neatly labelled in her handwriting. There is also a rare joint composition, “Untitled (Red Form)” (c.1960), made with her niece, the British painter Prunella Clough, to whom she wrote tender letters addressed to “Dear Pruny”.

The 60 paintings on show span the 1920s to the 1960s, and a good many of them were intended as designs for her rugs. “For Gray, it appears there was little aesthetic distinction between a painting and a carpet design,” argues Andrew Lambirth in “Eileen Gray: The Private Painter”, a book accompanying the exhibition. “She chose to ignore the entrenched divide between fine art and functional design.”

The paintings begin with figuration and move gradually to abstraction under the influence of Malevich and De Stijl. There are combinations of squares, rectangles and circles, increasingly grey and monochromatic but for threads and splashes of vivid colour. One gouache on paper from 1922, entitled “L’Art Noir (Study for a Rug)”, above, is in the form of a target that foreshadows pop-art imagery and its adoption by mod culture in the 1960s. “Cage” (1940) depicts a spidery figure trapped in a frame that eerily predates Francis Bacon’s imprisoning structures. The paint blots and bleeds here and there, and suggests her spontaneous way of working—the same sense of freedom she brought to her design experiments with materials as diverse as cork, celluloid and Bakelite.

Black-and-white photography was another lifelong activity, whether she was shooting advertising material for her designs or taking more personal photographs of rocks and driftwood or industrial landscapes, which often found their way into her paintings. Her eye for composition is at its most remarkable with the sun-and-shadow images of her “Port Grimaud” series (c.1950), where a towering grid of pipes and scaffolding comes to resemble classical architecture.

Gray’s posthumous revival was inspired by a handful of critics and collectors, among them Yves Saint Laurent. It began just before her death, in 1972, with the sale, for $36,000, of “Le Destin”, a lacquered screen made almost 60 years before. In 2009, her Dragon Chair (c.1917) sold for $28m, and is still the 20th century’s most expensive design piece. Under licensing deals with Aram in London and ClassiCon in Munich, her original furniture, including the pioneering work in chrome and steel, is now replicated around the globe (her chairs are even a fixture of the new Curzon art-house cinema in Bloomsbury). “Her dream always was to do steel furniture that could be easily replicated and inexpensively produced and get to a much larger audience,” Adam told me from his home in Paris. She was a true modernist, always looking ahead, without nostalgia for her art-deco past.

Her reputation was sealed when architecture’s male hierarchy finally accepted her as the true author of E.1027, an achievement hitherto obfuscated by her row with the domineering Le Corbusier and her lack of academic training; it is piquant, therefore, that there’s a watercolour in the show by Le Corbusier. On the strength of two completed buildings, Gray is now seen as the proto-feminist forerunner of Zaha Hadid and Eva Jiricna. She was unusual and significant because she cared as much about the interior of her houses as their external structure.

Her paintings and drawings don’t have that epic importance, but they are integral to appreciating how she worked. She had trained as a painter at the Slade, and, in later life, lacking architectural commissions, returned to making paper collages and painting in gouache, her preferred medium. Peter Adam, who includes a short memoir of Gray in the exhibition’s accompanying book, believes that she saw painting more as an escape and something she could still do in advanced old age. He recalls that she kept her artwork in large folders: “I’d say, ‘Eileen, we must do something with them’, and she’d say, ‘Nobody will be interested’. She was far too modest. Eileen thought highly of Prunella, and she felt inferior to Prunella. She thought, ‘I’m an architect and a furniture designer, but Prunella is the artist, the painter.’”

The end of her very long life was unbearably sad. In letters Adam saw, she wrote of being “swamped with misery. I feel like a ghost. Something left behind.” Once, she showed him a small, ivory-inlaid pistol and asked him how to use it, a request he denied. She took care to destroy most of her personal correspondence, with the same discretion she had always practised.

Since her death he has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to get the French government to approve a commemorative plaque on her apartment building. No doubt he feels a little guilty that her grave at Pére Lachaise cemetery is no longer marked. “We lost her ashes,” he said, regretfully. “They were tilted into a mass grave.” He had forgotten to renew the 30-year lease on her grave site. He sighed: “But she wouldn’t mind.” If that plaque does finally appear, perhaps it could encapsulate the tribute of Colin St John Wilson, architect of the British Library, who praised her "unique gift for turning the practical into the poetic”. That’s it, exactly.

Eileen Gray: The Private Painter The Osborne Samuel Gallery, London, October 13th to November 7th

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