It was wonderful visiting in November 2013 to see one of Dublin’s hidden treasures which is little known at the moment to visitors and an exhibition it is hosting curated by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, on Ireland’s greatest designer Eileen Gray. On an elevated site at Kilmainham commanding views of the Liffey and the Phoenix Park on the north bank is the Remarkable Royal Hospital which is on the same scale but two years older than its counterpart in Chelsea, London.
The Irish Museum of Modern Art is housed in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, the finest 17th-century building in Ireland. The Royal Hospital was founded in 1684 by James Butler, Duke of Ormonde and Viceroy to Charles II, as a home for retired soldiers and continued in that use for almost 250 years. The Royal Hospital is a striking location for displaying modern art. Like the Royal Hospital, Chelsea it is modelled on Les Invalides in Paris. Charles II had spent his exile in France under the protection of the French King and upon his Restoration in 1660 he was anxious that soldiers who stood by the Royalist cause should be looked after in their old age and infirmity. Magnificent in scale and position the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham is arranged around a courtyard and the interior has long corridors running along series of modest interlocking rooms and houses the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in some style.
The architect for Kilmainham was William Robinson, official State Surveyor General. Of his many other buildings only Marsh’s Library, Dublin and Charles Fort, Kinsale, still stand. The Royal Hospital in Chelsea was completed two years later and contains many similarities of style to Kilmainham. The Duke of Ormonde wanted the Royal Hospital to be on a grand scale, classical in layout and continental in style. He needed a home for his pensioner soldiers but equally he wanted a building of distinction that would, he hoped, mark the starting point of Dublin’s development into a city of European standing. The site selected for the Hospital was once part of the Phoenix Park. A large hospital, founded by Strongbow and under the care of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, was sited in this exact place but was demolished in 1670. Dr. Steeven’s Hospital, built nearby in 1720, is a small architectural replica of the Royal Hospital. Incidentally, Sir Patrick Dun was the first Medical Officer to the Royal Hospital.
The Royal Hospital remained an old soldiers’ home until 1927. In the 19th-century the building had gradually grown in military significance – becoming the residence and headquarters of the Commander in Chief of the army, who combined this role with that of Governor (or Master) of the Hospital. Queen Victoria paid two visits to the building, which was eventually handed over to the Free State in 1922. It was used as Garda Headquarters from 1930 to 1950. The building comprises a North Wing containing the Master’s Quarters, the Great Hall, the Chapel and the Vaulted Cellar with the 19th-century kitchen and the South, East and West Wings which provided accommodation for the pensioners.
The Royal Hospital Kilmainham was restored by the Government in 1984 and opened as the Irish Museum of Modern Art in May 1991. After a closure of three years for further restoration it has reopened its main building with a major retrospective of the work of Eileen Gray one of the most celebrated and influential designers and architects of the 20th-century. Designed and produced by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in collaboration with IMMA, this exhibition is a tribute to Gray’s career as a leading member of the modern design movement. The exhibition at IMMA celebrates Gray’s Irish roots and presents a number of previously unseen works that offer new insights into Gray’s extraordinary career.
Eileen Gray is regarded as one of the most important furniture designers and architects of the early 20th century and the most influential woman in those fields. Her work inspired both modernism and Art Deco. Her design style was as distinctive as her way of working, and Gray developed an opulent, luxuriant take on the geometric forms and industrially produced materials used by the International Style designers, such as Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Mies Van Der Rohe, who shared many of her ideals. Her voluptuous leather and tubular steel Bibendum Chair, and clinically chic E-1027 glass and tubular steel table are now as familiar as icons of the International Style as Le Corbusier and Perriands classic Grand Confort club chairs, yet for most of her career she was relegated to obscurity by the same proud singularity that makes her work so prized today.
Gray’s work has often been split into two parts by critics, with decorative arts on the one hand and architectural modernism on the other. This exhibition approaches Gray’s work as a whole, engaging, as she did, in drawing, painting, lacquering, interior decorating, architecture and photography. Renowned in France during the early decades of the 20th-century as a designer in lacquer furniture and interiors, Gray began to experiment with architecture in the late 1920s. The exhibition includes lacquer work, several of her carpet designs, samples from her Paris shop Jean Désert and key items of furniture from her work on the apartment of Madame Mathieu Levy and Gray’s own home, Tempe à Pailla.
Significant focus is given to her landmark piece of modernist architecture the French villa E-1027 , built in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in 1926-1929, in close collaboration with Romanian architect Jean Badovici. The exhibition includes examples of furniture for E-1027, including the tubular steel designs with which Gray’s name has become synonymous.
Eileen Gray (1878-1976) was born near Enniscorthy, Co Wexford and spent most of her childhood between Ireland and London. In 1902 Gray moved to Paris. She died in France at the age of 98. This extensive exhibition presents a unique opportunity for Irish audiences to experience a large group of work by one of Ireland’s most important cultural figures.
The exhibition at IMMA was hugely satisfying for me as someone who has both admired and championed Eileen Gray for many years. This retrospective provides an opportunity to consider her other rarely seen work such as her unrealised buildings, her prototype furniture and her personal creative practices of painting, drawing and photography. It presents a well rounded portrait of the person and her work as an Architect, Designer and Painter and never before have so many of her artefacts been brought together from multiple owners to explore the person and her works. Particularly satisfying for me was the logical chronology of her amazing output over a long career until she died at the age of 98 in 1976. Indeed it was only in retrospect that the importance of her contribution was fully understood.
I was delighted to see there were separate displays on the three summer houses she built on the Riviera with the furniture, carpets and fittings shown in the context of these remarkable buildings, E-1027 at Roquebrune Cap-Martin, Tempe a Pailla at Menton and Lou Perou (named after a trip she made to Peru in 1929) at Chapelle Sainte-Anne, south of St. Tropez. Her architectural work suffered in WW11. After she left E.1027 to Jean Badovici in 1932 she built a house inland from Menton, Tempa a Pailla, at Castellar. After the war she discovered that her apartment in Saint-Tropez had been looted and her house in Tempe a Pailla had been blown up by the Nazis. She constructed her last house, Lou Pérou (1954-61) in the vineyards of Chappelle-Ste-Anne. She transformed a dilapidated agricultural shed outside Saint-Tropez into a summer home and soon moved there to continue her work.
Le Corbusier, arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century, was obsessed and haunted by E-1027, the seaside villa Eileen Gray built at Roquebrune Cap Martin in 1929. Over the decades, he sought to possess her “maison en bord de mer” in a multitude of ways. It may have been the last thing he saw before dying of a heart attack while swimming off the rocks beneath E-1027 in 1965. After he died, the footpath serving the area was designated Promenade Le Corbusier. In time, as Gray’s reputation faded, some would even credit him with the design of her villa.
A remarkable women and a remarkably productive long life which is done justice by this wonderfully comprehensive and well curated exhibition in one of Ireland’s greatest buildings. The furniture from her Paris apartment now forms the centrepiece of the Eileen Gray exhibition at the National Museum, Collins Barracks in Dublin. It is good that this most famous Irish designer’s great talent is recognised in her own country and in the extraordinary prices her works achieve in the salerooms.
Irish Museum of Modern Art
Royal Hospital, Military Road, Kilmainham, Dublin, 8. IRELAND
For more on her remarkable Villa at Roquebrune Cap-Martin see;
Restoration of Eileen Gray’s ground breaking villa E-1027 http://www.skibbereeneagle.ie/uncategorized/restoration-of-eileen-grays-ground-breaking-villa-e-1027/
For her chair Fauteuil aux Serpents which achieved a world record price of almost €22m, the highest price ever paid for a piece of 20th Century furniture see;