Author Patricia O’Reilly – Eileen Gray and the Destiny Screen

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The Interview by Patricia O'ReillyPatricia O’Reilly and I met at the London Historical Novel Society Conference and had a delightful time getting to know one another over dinner. Patricia has several books to her credit and offers writing courses as well as professional editing services. Here she is discussing some of the background for her latest novel The Interview. 

Eileen Gray and the Destiny Screen

Paris 1972. The most stylish auction of the year took place at The Hôtel Drouot, the world famous auction house. The items listed in the catalogue of the executors’ sale of Jacques Doucet’s effects included ‘GRAY (Eileen) Le Destin. 4-panel screen in lacquer decorated with figures in green and silver on a red background.’ Bidding for the screen opened briskly and climbed in francs even more briskly to the equivalent of $36,000 where it stopped. Once, twice, three times the gavel was raised and lowered.

The Destiny Screen was sold for the then highest price ever paid for a ‘modern’ antique. The crowd released a collective breath as it sought information. Who was the buyer? It was known that French couturier Yves Saint Laurent was prime bidder, but the screen went to American collector Robert Walker. Who was this Eileen Gray – she must be long dead as the screen was dated 1914.

Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray wasn’t dead. She was alive and well, living and still designing at her home in no 21 rue Bonaparte in the exclusive 6th arrondisment of Paris. The Destiny Screen which is synonymous with her international success is as complex and as complicated as the woman who created it.

She was born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, on the east coast of Ireland on August 9, 1878. She was the youngest of five children and the family lived in a mansion named Brownswood, best described as ‘country Georgian’. Her mother Eveleen Pounden, a woman of a dominating nature and mild eccentricity, was from a distinguished family with a Scottish peerage dating back to the 15th century. Her father, James MacLaren Smith, a mediocre painter, was dark-haired, dandified and handsome. They eloped when she was 21. But with four children and another on the way, Eveleen grew tired of her penniless existence and returned to live with her parents at Brownswood.

When Eileen was eleven years of age her parents’ marriage broke up. Her father left Ireland to live and paint in Europe. When her sister Thora married, Eileen and her mother moved to The Boltons, their stylish London address.

At the dawn of the 20th century most women chose marriage for independence from parental and social restrictions. But not Eileen. Influenced by her father, she planned a life of creativity, saying her desire for freedom was too strong to be satisfied by exchanging one dependency for another. Against her mother and brothers’ wishes, she enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art, but found her true calling when she came across the display of lacquer in the newly opened Victoria & Albert Museum. She took lessons from Charles Dean in Soho.

The family changed their name to Gray after her mother inherited the title of Baroness Gray on the death of the last of her six bachelor uncles in Scotland. Eileen became an honourable – a title she refused to use. Her father died in France in 1900, and the same year her youngest brother, Captain Lonsdale Richard Gray was killed in the Boer War.

In the hope of moving beyond the pall of mourning, Eileen and Eveleen visited L’Exposition Universelle, the world fair celebrating the achievements of the past century, and on this occasion focussing on Art Nouveau. And so began Eileen’s love affair with Paris and her fascination for the new and innovative. She bought a four-room apartment in a gracious mansion particular and hired Heloise Dany, the maid who remained with her for more than six decades. She shingled her hair, did away with her wardrobe of Edwardian clothes and ordered modern outfits from the top couturiers. Her nails were manicured and her underwear hand-made silken.

She convinced Seizo Sugawara, a master in lacquer work, to give her lessons. He was from Japan, had come to Paris for L’Exposition and, like her, was enchanted with the city.

Lacquering is a difficult skill. But Eileen would not be daunted. She set up a workshop in her apartment and learned how to put on up to 30 layers of lacquer, allow the requisite several days drying time, rub down each coat with a pumice stone and the flat of her palm, knowing that any imperfection meant starting again from the beginning. When she contracted lacquer disease, she dismissed it with a shrug, regarding it as a minor bother, but she was excited at creating a blue lacquer, something Mr Charles and Sugawara had told her was impossible, and she was savvy enough to register details of the patent.

She became tired of practising on the small panels that Sugawara insisted on and wanted to create a large allegorical piece. On a rainy afternoon while sheltering in a little known Gallery, she found her subject. A line drawing of a man reputed to be a madman incarcerated in La Salpetrière hospital.

During the many months she spent creating the 4-panel screen, she was oblivious of the honour of being exhibited at the VIII Salon de la Societé des Artistes Décorateurs. Blithely, she ignored both private and work-related invitations to the functions that surrounded a successful showing, including overtures from the Duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre whose circle included Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney, as well as Jacques Doucet.

The Destiny ScreenMonsieur Doucet was as well known for his collection of art deco as he was for his couture worn by royalty. When he saw the completed screen, he made an immediate offer. Eileen refused, as she had decided to keep the piece for herself, but over several days he bombarded her, and eventually – most uncharacteristically – she agreed to sell it to him, and even stranger she signed it – Gray 1914 – it was the only piece of her work to have her signature.

With the purchase of Le Destin, Jacques Doucet became not only Eileen’s first customer but also her mentor. While she was determined in all aspects of her creativity, Eileen was reserved. She refused to promote her work and was a reluctant socialiser, although she was part of a circle of creative English upper class who had settled in Paris pre-World War I.

She was one of first women in Paris to get a driving licence, and she drove an ambulance during part of World War I. She had her baptême de l’air, as she called it, ballooning with Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame); later fulfilled her wish of learning to fly and was one of the first to fly the airmail plane from Mexico city to Acapulco

In 1917 an article on her work appeared in English Vogue titled, An Artist in Lacquer, and stating, ‘She stands alone, unique, the champion of a singularly free method of expression.’ The quiet Irishwoman was internationally recognised as a design tour de force.

Patricia O'ReillyMany thanks for such a fascinating story, Patricia. 

Patricia O’Reilly’s new novel The Interview is the story of Eileen Gray’s meeting with rising star of Fleet Street, Bruce Chatwin. Critically acclaimed, The Interview is described as ‘literary ventriloquism’. Published by New Island Books it is widely available including http://www.amazon.com/The-Interview-Patricia-OReilly/dp/1848403488