Women Artists of WW1: Norah Neilson Gray

When Norah Neilson Gray (1882 -1931) taught at St. Columba’s School for Girls in Kilmacolm her students called her “Purple Patch” because she was always urging them to look for the color in the shadows.

You can see that she took her own advice in this painting Hôpital Auxilaire 1918. It shows the reception area of the Royaumont Abbaye Hospital as it was in 1918 when it functioned as the first Scottish Women’s Hospital under the French Red Cross. It’s crowded with wounded soldiers and hospital personnel and full of bustle and activity. 

Royaumont was an abandoned French abbey built by Louis IX in 1228 and from January 1915 until March 1919 it was largest British voluntary hospital, one of the closest such hospitals to the front line. In those four years the vaulted ceilings, decaying walls and secluded cloisters were transformed into a fully operational  hospital overseen by Dr Frances Ivens and her all-woman team of surgeons, nurses, drivers, orderlies, cooks, radiologists and physicians. 

The wards were named after preeminent women such as Millicent Fawcett, Joan of Arc, and Elsie Inglis. They were filled with the coming and going of thousands of severely wounded allied soldiers, many from across the France and its colonies.

Hôpital Auxilaire 1918 Norah Neilson-Gray

It was painted from within

Gray said of the painting: “It was painted from within, at the time, and absolutely true to fact”. She offered it to the Imperial War Museum who – with limited funds at its disposal – said no.  The Women’s Work Sub-committee of the IWM  wanted a painting to reflect the extraordinary work of the women at the hospital  and it requested a painting showing a woman doctor at work.  

Her second painting of Royaumont Abbaye is rather more static and posed. Entitled The Scottish Women’s Hospital In The Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont, it was accepted by the IWM in 1920. It shows a view along the cloister and a row of beds filled with patients. In the left foreground two nurses tend to a patient while Dr Ivens stands looking out.as if toward a camera. French officers and soldiers in blue uniforms and a man in a Fez-style hat stand in the foreground right.

The Scottish Women’s Hospital: In The Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont, Norah Neilson-Gray 1920.

Self portrait, Norah Neilson Gray 1918.

Gray grew up in Helensburgh on the Clyde, the second youngest of seven children of a prosperous Glasgow shipowner. When family moved to Glasgow in 1901 Gray began to study at studied at the Glasgow School of Art. 

 “It’s my show”

Self-Portrait in a Cloche Hat

The school was dominated by male academics but the director – Francis Newberry – encouraged women and many attended as part-time students under the supervision of a woman warden and housekeeper. Gray studied with Newberry and the Belgian Symbolist painter Jean Delville. In 1906 Gray joined the staff and taught fashion design and illustration until 1918.

Gray was counted a member of the so-called “Glasgow Girls” who, together with the” Boys”, comprised The Glasgow School – an influential circle of artists and designers who flourished there in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Gray established a reputation as an accomplished portrait painter and her work was shown at the Royal Academy, the Glasgow Institute and in Paris. By 1910 Gray had her own studio and a one-person show at Warneuke’s Gallery.

 “It’s my show” is what she said to the critics when she covered up the maroon walls of the gallery with a light-colored scrim and toned down the gold frames of her pictures. 

The Belgian Refugee by Norah Neilson Gray (1882-1931). Also known as The Belgian in Exile. Completed circa 1915 it depicts a man from Liege who fled to Scotland when his country was invaded by Germany in 1914. It was awarded a bronze medal when exhibited in Paris in 1921

In April 1918 Gray volunteered as a VAD and served as an orderly with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in a hospital at Royaumont.

Orderlies – known as “the white caps” – were the backbone of the hospital carrying out heavy work including receiving and moving patients on stretchers, mopping blood-stained floors and changing beds.

This was volunteer work for which there was no pay – only travel, uniform and board and lodging were provided for.

Conditions were harsh and the pressure unrelenting. This was the time of the Ludendorff Spring Offensive. The hospital was busy.

Gray apparently used her limited spare time to draw soldiers and staff and the lofty vaulted cloisters of the Abbaye. Other than the two paintings above I have not been able to find any of that work online.

Her leaving summary from October 1918 itemizes her expenses for reimbursement.

The leaving summary for Norah Neilson Gray who served as an orderly at Royaumont April-October 1918

The story of Royaumont, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and the pioneering courage of the women who founded and served in them is among the most remarkable of the war and deserves a full focus of its own. 

Gray returned to Glasgow in October 1918 and resumed her career as a portrait painter. She died in 1931 at the age of 48. According to the Imperial War Museum the cause was an infection she contracted in France. Other reports say it was cancer.

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