AN IMPORTANT work by a leading Helensburgh artist of the past, Norah Neilson Gray, is now on display in Helensburgh Library.
The painting, “Hôpital Auxilaire D’Armée 30, Abbaye de Royaumont” by Norah Neilson Gray, was gifted to the people of Helensburgh by the artist’s sister, Dr Tina Gray, on her death in 1984.
For four years it awaited a suitable location where, in accordance with the donor’s wishes, it could be permanently on display in the burgh.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Argyll and Bute Area Librarian Pat McCann, it hangs in the Gallery of the West King Street library.
At first glance, the setting of this painting is hardly local or even Scottish. It is the vaulted reception area of the Royaumont Abbaye, near Paris, as it was in 1918 when it served as a Red Cross hospital.
It was staffed entirely by women of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, one of whom was the artist of this painting, Norah Neilson Gray, who served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse.
Norah Neilson Gray was born in 1882 at Carisbrook in West King Street and began her artistic career at “The Studio”, a private drawing establishment at Craigendoran.
She went on to study at Glasgow School of Art and is now regarded as part of the group known as the “Glasgow Girls”, which included Evelyn Carslaw, Eleanor Moore and Margaret Macdonald.
While still a student, she had a picture accepted by the Royal Academy and was becoming recognised for her distinctive use of colour and composition and, above all, for her talent as a portrait painter.
The First World War years, 1914-18 inspired some of her most powerful paintings, many of which were acquired by public collections.
While working as a volunteer nurse at the Royaumont hospital she used her limited spare time to draw soldiers and staff and the lofty vaulted cloisters of the Abbaye. These later resulted in the masterful group portrait now on show.
After the war, Norah offered this painting to the Imperial War Museum because she felt “it was painted from within, at the time and absolutely true to fact”.
She believed that the War Museum should have a record of what was done “by the British for the French Army in the way of Hospitals”.
She was adamant that the painting should be acquired for the General Section and not be Gla consigned to the Women’s Work Section, as the museum proposed.
Unfortunately for the museum, but not for Helensburgh, her offer was refused because the purchasing budget for the General Section had been exhausted.
A year later, however, the Imperial War Museum commissioned her to paint a record of the staff at the hospital and this rather more formal painting now forms part of the Museum’s collection. Both these Royaumont paintings were on display at the Royal College of Surgeons’ quincentenary exhibition in Edinburgh in 2008.
Back in Glasgow after the war, Norah resumed her career as a portrait painter and also began painting from the family’s home on Loch Long, an area which inspired many of her most lyrical watercolours.
Despite ill health, she continued painting and exhibiting in Scotland, London and Paris until her early death in 1931.
- The self portrait of Norah Neilson Gray belongs to her descendant, Professor Edward Armour.