What does it take to be considered an ‘Irish’ artist? Two retrospectives currently in Dublin and Belfast, unintentionally pose this question. At the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) one can see a collection of Eileen Gray’s work (until 19 January 2014) while the Ulster Museum is marking the centenary of William Scott’s birth (until 2 February 2014). Tellingly both shows debuted in other venues, and both perforce display a degree of ambiguity when discussing their respective subject’s connections with Ireland.
Scott, for example, was born in the Scottish Lowlands and spent a decade there before his parents moved the family to Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. He attended the Belfast School of Art but having done badly in his final exams in 1931 transferred to the Royal Academy School in London and from then on spent little time in Ireland. Nevertheless, depending on the intended market auction houses sometimes classify him as British, sometimes as Irish, just as they do Sir John Lavery. And for many aficionados in Ireland, despite his limited links with the country Scott is unquestionably deemed ‘one of our own.’ (So too on occasion is Francis Bacon, but that’s for another time).
Gray is both simpler and harder to categorise. Her background was what in Ireland is known as ‘Big House’, in other words she came from the landed gentry. In this respect, she bears comparison with the novelist Elizabeth Bowen who has never been universally accepted as Irish even though she spent far more time in Ireland than did Gray. In fact the latter like Scott had powerful links with Scotland – although born in County Wexford, her father was Scottish and her mother inherited a Scottish peerage. After studying in London at the Slade School of Art, Gray moved to Paris in 1902, five years later acquiring the apartment on rue Bonaparte in which she lived until her death almost seven decades later. Again, especially after her mother died in 1918 she only returned to Ireland a handful of times. France was her base, its artists and designers her peers.
It is true that Gray never forgot her Irish roots; in 1973 she wrote to Dublin-based art critic Dorothy Walker ‘anything to do with Ireland always moves me’ and later that ‘I long for Ireland.’ Yet one imagines that she would not have experienced such longing had she tarried in Ireland, especially in the aftermath of the country achieving independence when cultural conservatism became the norm. Both Gray and Scott alike could only develop their talents because they distanced themselves from the country that now wants to claim them.
Furthermore it is difficult to see anything inherently ‘Irish’ in the output of either: their inspiration derived from trends in international modernism rather than what was happening within Ireland. Compare this with the work of another of the last century’s great modernists, James Joyce. His writings are utterly and irrefutably indebted to the city in which he was born and raised, Dublin. Joyce demonstrates that it is possible to be both global and local. With Gray and Scott, on the other hand, it is hard, if not impossible, to see the influence of an Irish background in what they produced. Hence one should be wary of claiming too great an affinity.
When the Gray exhibition opened last month, the Irish Times’ environment editor Frank McDonald had what might best be described as a ‘Hello Dolly’ moment, excitedly tweeting ‘she’s come home in great style’ as though the designer had just returned from a prolonged holiday. In art ultimately what matters is the journey’s conclusion, not its starting point. Preoccupations with the Irishness of William Scott and Eileen Gray diminish rather than enhance their reputations.