Andrew Lambirth

Shades of Gray

Although marginalised or ignored for much of her long life, the designer and architect Eileen Gray (1878–1976) is now a hugely admired and influential figure, celebrated in the same breath as Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and Charles Eames. I was first aware of her as the aunt of the distinguished painter Prunella Clough (who looked after Gray in her declining years), and acquainted with her work mostly through illustrations in books and catalogues. So this retrospective of her work was eagerly awaited, even though the Design Museum seems so often to be hamstrung by limited budgets. In the event, the exhibition is quietly exciting, though it leaves the visitor with the appetite stimulated rather than appeased. Oh for a full-scale display which does more than suggest the richness of this remarkable artist’s gifts.

Gray was born in County Wexford into a wealthy Scottish–Irish family. Her father, James Maclaren Smith, was a painter who lived abroad most of the time (he died in Switzerland in 1900), and so it seemed natural for the independently-minded Eileen to want to attend art school rather than marry some suitable young man. Her mother finally allowed her to go to the Slade in 1901, where she studied under Tonks, Steer and Brown. Later she escaped to Paris with a couple of friends to study painting in the academies there. Returning to London in 1905 to care for her ill mother, she became interested in lacquer techniques, which were to occupy her principally over the next decade and a half. By 1906 she was back in Paris and, apart from a brief sojourn in London during the first world war, she lived in France for the rest of her life.

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