A meeting of minds

She was Ireland’s legendary, but utterly reclusive, design genius; he was a handsome magazine writer looking for a big break. When they met, she inspired him to write a book that changed travel. So how did Bruce Chatwin persuade Eileen Gray to open up? And why was the interview never published? By Patricia O’Reilly



IN NOVEMBER 1972 the spotlight of the international media was firmly focused on Irish designer, architect and painter, Eileen Gray. The reason was the $36,000 price her lacquer screen, Le Destin, had fetched at the executors’ auction of the Jacques Doucet collection. It had been bought by an American collector who handed over the highest price ever paid for a ‘modern’ antique. Initially everyone presumed the creator of the screen was dead – after all, it dated back to 1913. But an American journalist tracked down Eileen Gray to her Paris apartment. The reclusive 94-year-old refused to be interviewed by him or the other TV cameramen, newspaper reporters and radio journalists who followed.

Eileen Gray was from an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family who lived at Brownswood, Enniscorthv, Co. Wexford, and The Boltons in London. Her mother Eveleen was the daughter of Lady Jane Stuart and Jeremiah Lonsdale Pounden, and her father, James McLaren Smith, was a Scottish painter of mediocre landscapes. Eileen, the youngest of the family, was born in 1878. From the outset she was a strange child – a loner, with a habit of sleeping on the floor outside her parents’ bedroom. When she was 11 her father left his marriage and home and returned to Italy to paint. Eileen was devastated and poured her love into Brownswood. A few years later. her eldest sister Ethel married Henry Tufnell Campbell. When they settled in Brownswood, he embarked on a ‘renovation’ which turned out to be a demolition – Eileen and her mother moved to The Boltons.

In London, Eileen refused to go the debutante route of the Season and presentation at Court. Instead, determined to follow in her father’s artistic footsteps, she enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Arts. Disappointed at her skill as a painter, she sought an alternative medium for her creativity. She discovered Japanese lacquer at the Kensington Museum and found a teacher in Soho. In 1895. when Eveleen became the 19th Baroness Gray, the family name was changed to McLaren Smith-Gray; and Eileen became an honourable, a title she never used.

In 1900 her father died, followed a few months later by her youngest brother Lonsdale, a captain in the British Army serving in the Boer War. When Eileen attended L’Exposition Universelle 1901 in Paris, she not only fell in love with the city, she developed what was to be a lifetime fascination with technology. There, she saw 7,000 light bulbs all lighting at the same time; a model of a Chenard Walker motor car and even a flying machine. Five years later, she set up home in Paris, bought a four-room apartment on rue Bonaparte, hired Louise Dany as her maid and enrolled in art classes. She also continued lessons in lacquering with Seizo Sugawara, a Japanese master of the craft.

After years of working on small panels, she set out to create a lacquer screen with an allegorical flavor. Sugawara doubted her ability to execute a large, four-panel screen, but she proved him wrong. She sourced materials, drew plans, constructed and even created blue lacquer which, up to then, had defied the experts. Eileen was savvy enough to license her findings. Finally she layered the screen with 20 coats of resin, applied in an atmosphere of running steam to create humidity, waited up to ten days for each layer to dry, rubbed coat after coat to smoothness with charcoal on the palm of her hand – all while coping with the curse of lacquer rash.

rugs and lampDuring the months of creating Le Destin she lived like a hermit. She ignored Picasso who used to discuss cubism with her; shunned Romain Brooks’s and Natalie Barney’s soirées; avoided her lover Jessie Gavin and her friends, Kathleen Bruce, who later married Scott of the Antarctic; the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the writer Gertrude Stein. Her sole relaxation was flying lessons. She was hooked on aviation after her baptême de l’air in a balloon with Charles Rolls (of Rolls-Royce fame), and was the first person to fly the mail route to Mexico.

In 1913 her lacquer panels were displayed at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs and caught the attention of Jacques Doucet. He was a well-known patron of the arts and couturier, who dressed the likes of actress Sarah Bernhardt. He acquired Le Destin as a centrepiece for his salon and persuaded Eileen to sign and date it 1913. It’s the only piece she ever signed.

Eileen had cut her hair into a sharp bob, wore contemporary clothes from top designers and hand-made silk underwear and kept her nails manicured. She was one of the first women in Paris to get a driving licence. During the First World War she divided her time between London and Paris where she drove an ambulance. An article in British Vogue, titled An Artist In Lacquer, describes her as standing ‘alone, unique, the champion of a singularly free method of expression’.

Bibendum chair, table and rugsIn the early Twenties. Eileen was commissioned to refurbish the Lévy apartment at Rue de Lota. Monsieur Lévy was a wealthy banker and his wife, better known as Suzanne Talbot, was the most successful milliner in Paris. Eileen set to the task with gusto: using 450 lacque blocks in the hallway; designing the Dragon Armchair, the Bibendum Chair and the Pirogue Sofa where the media-savvy Madame Lévy was photographed, complete with cigarette holder. The finished apartment drew interest from America and commissions from beef barons in Argentina and Indian maharajas.

The love of Eileen’s life was Marie-Louise Damien, better known as Damia. She was the daughter of a gendarme who took the Parisian nightclub scene by storm. The two women were a familiar sight driving along the Champs-Elysée in Eileen’s roadster with Damia’s pet panther sitting in the back. The relationship broke up when Damia switched her affection to Gabrielle Bloch, the daughter of a wealthy German banker.

By 1926 Eileen’s passion for lacquer had waned, her heart was in architecture and she was involved with Jean Badovici – a penniless Romanian architect, ten years her junior. Her dream of building a holiday home in the south of France was realised when she found the perfect site and designed what became one of the most iconic houses of the 20th Century. She named it the E1027 – E for Eileen, 10 for Jean (beginning with the tenth letter – J), 2 for Badovici and 7 for Gray. She oversaw every aspect from foundations to furnishings and, dressed in chic trouser suits, she was a familiar sight driving the narrow roads around Menton. Jean and she spent happy times there until Le Corbusier, arguably the most famous architect of the era, and his wife visited. He painted eight explicitly sexual murals on the white walls of the villa. When he refused to remove them. Eileen left with her maid. And never went back.

By the early Thirties, her sight was failing and while she worked on other holiday villas and a variety of forward-thinking projects, her star was in descent. For the next four decades she led a reclusive life, although she never stopped designing.

Bruce ChatwinIn 1972, when Le Destin made history, Bruce Chatwin was a rising star of Fleet Street. Hired by the Sunday Times’ newly launched magazine as an adviser on art and architecture, he fast gained a reputation for his interview skills, and was commissioned to interview Eileen Gray

He was in his early 30s, charming and handsome, with a sweep of blond hair, and the upper-class accent Eileen would have known from her days of socialising in London. He succeeded in gaining access to her but she was adamant that she would not be interviewed. He had done his research well and charmed her into two hours of conversation.

He was a war baby, the eldest of two sons, doted on by his mother and the variety of relatives they stayed with while his father served with the Royal Naval Reserve at Scapa Flow. In 1945, the family settled in Birmingham where Chatwin senior set up a successful law practice.

Bruce loved both men and women. He first fell in love while at Marlborough College when Ivry Guild, his best friend’s sister slid out of a two-tone Bentley dressed like a Twenties’ flapper and removed from the boot chocolate cake and smoked sturgeon. His muse was Noël Coward and his school days are best remembered for his playing of Mrs Candour in School For Scandal rather than for his academic or sporting ability.

With ‘pull’, his father got him a position as a porter in Sotheby’s auction house in London. Thanks to Bruce’s sharp visual acuity, he quickly rose through the ranks to become head of Impressionists. But he was shamelessly exploited – to the extent of visiting Somerset Maugham in the Dorchester Hotel, and to ensure he wouldn’t cancel a sale, permitting him to play with his freshly washed hair!

After a particularly arduous dash from New York to Dublin and a mad drive to Donegal, he woke up with blurred vision which was attributed to the close analysis of artwork his job entailed. After a break in the Sudan, he resigned from Sotheby’s to read archaeology at Edinburgh University where – despite winning the Wardrop Prize – he left without taking his degree. By then, he was married to heiress Elizabeth Chanler (a descendant of John Jacob Astor).

By 1972 most of Eileen Gray’s friends and family were dead; she had the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease and her eyesight was failing further. That November afternoon Bruce drew on her memories. He learned that she’d destroyed her private papers and photographs, but kept a meticulous record of her projects; that she had a selection of stray cats, all named Abelard; only ten years previously she’d debated buying a Vespa scooter; how none of the houses she’d designed matched her love for Brownswood and her regret at returning to Ireland for the auction; how she’d created a rug called Ulysses to celebrate the publication of James Joyce’s book of the same title.

When Bruce admired a painting hanging on the wall, she said it was a gouache of Patagonia, that she’d wanted to go there but was too old now. He confided that a distant black sheep of his family had been banished to Patagonia, and he was curious to trace what had happened to him. ‘Go there for me’, she is reputed to have said while promising him a gift of the painting. A month later, Bruce wrote from his Sloane Avenue address in London thanking her for ‘the most enjoyable Sunday afternoon I’ve spent in years’.

When Eileen Gray died in 1976. she willed him the painting. By then he had left the Sunday Times and flown out to Patagonia where he wrote In Patagonia, the book reputed to have changed travel writing forever.

Their interview was never published – no-one is certain of the reason why.

I have been fascinated by Eileen Gray since the Nineties when I was commissioned by a magazine to write a piece on the Irish diaspora. I followed by doing a radio play, several talks, newspaper and magazine features, as well Time & Destiny, a fact-based novel on her life.

When I discovered that Bruce Chatwin’s interview with Eileen Gray had not been published, The Interview was born. My second book about Eileen, it is a fictionalised account of my take on what happened between the media darling and the rising star of Fleet Street.

The Interview by Patricia O’Reilly will be published by New Island Books in May