Non-Conformist: Eileen Gray’s E-1027 house revisited

Eileen Gray: The Private Painter

Peter Adam and Andrew Lambirth, Lund Humphries, £30

Osborne Samuel gallery, London, 14 October - 17 November 2015

Eileen Gray
Photo: Aram Designs

Although Eileen Gray is best known for her furniture and architecture, privately she was an artist. She trained as a painter at the Slade School of Art, while later in life, art occupied the moments when building or interior commissions began to slow down. 'Painting is a lifelong business,' she said. Through the ups and downs of her life, from the E-1027 house to the war, as she retreated away more and more to her little apartment on rue Bonaparte in Paris, art remained a constant. She created abstract paintings in gouache, mixed media collages and tested out designs for rugs, yet never exhibited any of her artwork, not even in her own Jean Desert gallery. For her, reserved and modest, painting was a private, if not secret, hobby.

Few of her drawings survive; Gray herself destroyed traces and burned material, deeming it too personal or simply not good enough for public consumption. During the Second World War she was forced to move out of the house she had built for herself after E-1027 at Castellar, called Tempe à Pailla, and also a small flat at St Tropez. On her return she found the St Tropez flat ruined and her belongings floating in the water. When she travelled on to the Castellar house, her furniture, rugs and artwork there too had been looted or destroyed, and her signature built-in cupboards torn out. She returned to Paris with nothing and continued to work on drawings and furniture designs right up until her death in 1976. By the end of her life, she had retained just two folders of her artwork.

Untitled [woman looking into a mirror] by Le Corbusier, c. 1929
Untitled [woman looking into a mirror] by Le Corbusier, c. 1929. Courtesy of Osborne Samuel

After Gray's death her estate was managed by her niece, the painter Prunella Clough. In 2000, Gray's work passed to the National Museum of Ireland, where it is still on permanent display, but some works remained in private hands, and it is this that forms the content of the book Eileen Gray: The Private Painter, co-written by her biographer and friend Peter Adam, and a small exhibition of never-before-seen works (many for sale) at Mayfair's Osborne Samuel gallery in October.

Gray attended the Slade School of Art in London in 1902, attending classes in 'drawing from the antique' and copying plaster casts of classical sculptures. Unimpressed with the courses, she went to Paris in 1903 and studied at the Académie Colarossi before enrolling at the Académie Julian, the alternative to the more prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts. Not only were women admitted as students to the Julian, but they were also permitted to draw nude male models. Gray revelled in the artistic freedom of Paris but refused to be defined by fashions, tastes or movements, making her work even more elusive. Lacquer screens became her canvas, before she moved onto furniture, whole room schemes and architecture.

Marine d’Abord [study for a rug], gouache on paper, 1926–9
Marine d'Abord [study for a rug], gouache on paper, 1926-9. Courtesy Osborne Samuel

That freedom translated into her drawings and collages, which, reflecting her more physical work, interiors and buildings, developed from figuration to increasing abstraction while she figured out her own style. The same simple lines and geometrics shapes can be seen in her artwork: ranging from cubist rectangular forms and circular motifs to bold overlapping shapes.

She favoured dark, monochromatic compositions of blacks and greys with some elements of bright yellow. But far from being flat, one-dimensional pieces of work, Gray worked experimentally with watery gouache to create textural marble effects, pools of ink and multiple layers. Some pieces bring to mind the thickly built up work of Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies, with torn bits of newspaper, complex layers of paper and distressed or pockmarked surfaces.

One painting, Untitled c.1940, looks almost like spores of mould have collected on the surface; it is not quite clear if the mould is intentional or just from wear and tear over the years. Another, Untitled c.1930, looks like stormy seas with dark, moody skies that she perhaps might have seen on her many trips to the French Riviera.

Gray's black-and-white photographs took her collages and artwork one step further. She created striking still-life studies or 'tablescapes' of collected objects that, inspired by Man Ray and the Surrealists (many of whom she knew), used glass and mirrors to play with effects of light and shadow. Photos of her room settings were also used to show how her furniture could be arranged and used, partly for what little self-promotion she did.

One of the most intriguing parts of the exhibition and book, though, is her personal effects that put you within touching distance of the woman herself. There's her paint-splattered architect's table and a functional oak chest that she had made up to her design in 1926 (on sale for £250,000), both of which lived in her workroom in 21 rue Bonaparte in Paris.

Eileen Gray’s architectural table
Eileen Gray's architectural table. Courtesy Osborne Samuel

Like her compartmentalised built-in furniture at E-1027, drawers were divided up and handwritten labels can still be seen. Other pieces include her chrome cigarette case, a monocle holder inscribed Eileen and several portraits of her, including one by her Slade contemporary Wyndham Lewis.

One painting (1929) by Le Corbusier, small and easy to miss by the window of the Osborne Samuel gallery, shows a woman with one arm up, looking into a mirror. It could be Gray looking into her own Satellite Mirror in the bathroom at E-1027. It seems to symbolise the way Gray looked into her own world - an independent mind, private, shy and elusive. For decades her artwork remained unseen, and her furniture forgotten, but now we are finally getting a fuller picture of the real Eileen Gray; a fascinating, multi-faceted woman, in a class of her own.

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