Modern Master – An exhibition of architectural drawings, photographs and works on paper by Raymond McGrath


Born in Australia, of Irish descent, McGrath was among the leading architects in 1930s England. The Second World War took him to the safety of Dublin and the Office of Public Works; he became Principal Architect in 1948. 

Dr Ruth Adler, Australian Ambassador to Ireland opens an exhibition marking the 110 anniversary of the birth of the noted architect, Raymond McGrath. The opening of the exhibition coincides with the welcoming reception for delegates attending the conference of the European Forum on Architectural Policies (EFAP), an Irish EU Presidency event. Jan O’Sullivan TD, Minster for Housing, will welcome the EFAP delegates to Dublin. Members of the McGrath family, including Raymond’s son, the noted architectural photographer Norman McGrath, also attended.

Born in Australia, of Irish descent, McGrath was among the leading architects in 1930s England. The Second World War took him to the safety of Dublin and the Office of Public Works; he became Principal Architect in 1948.

The young McGrath was gifted – a writer of poetry and prose, a prize-winning student, a maker of etchings, woodcuts, bookplates and illustrated manuscripts. He left for Europe on a generous travelling scholarship in his early 20s, his only building in Australia a war memorial in the grounds of Callan Park Hospital, Sydney. Enrolled as the first research student in architecture at the University of Cambridge, his planned thesis on architecture for theatre and public entertainment was overtaken by his rapid success as a practicing architect. He became pre-eminent in the use of elements which would be so typical of buildings for moderne leisure –glass, light and colour.

McGrath’s first European work, a remodelling of the house ‘Finella’ at Queen’s Road Cambridge (1929), was celebrated in The Times as ‘a pioneer example of modern interior design’ for its expressionist and novel use of plastics, water, metal and glass. His appointment, aged 27, as Decoration Consultant to the BBC saw him cooperate with a team that included Wells Coates and Serge Chermayeff. The dramatically lit and varied interiors of the new Broadcasting House on Portland Place made material McGrath’s sense of modernity, described by the BBC Yearbook as ‘the grace of true functionalism’. His facility with new materials and techniques was expressed in his inventive designs for Fischer’s Restaurant in New Bond Street which saw one of the first uses of nitrogen tube lighting, and St Ann’s Hill in Surrey (1936-7) the ‘peeled away’ south façade likened by the architect to ‘a big cheese’, with a slice cut for the sunlight to enter the whole house.

While McGrath was not charged with the asceticism and social concerns cited as typical of modernism, his writings and illustrations of the 1930s demonstrate a belief in the ‘evolutionary’ path of design. This was expressed with great charm in his ‘Progress and Period’ illustrated chart of English dress, vehicles and furniture developed for a special issue of Architectural Review in 1933, and used for the important Design in Modern Life edited by John Gloag (1934). A gifted illustrator, McGrath also designed wallpaper, clocks and electric appliances; he wrote books on modern house design and glass in architecture and decoration.

The outbreak of war was financially devastating, and McGrath’s move to Dublin as senior architect for the Board of Works came less than a year later. Working as head of the government’s architectural services from 1948, his career came to be partly one of procuring, restoring and furnishing important state buildings, for example Irish embassies abroad. McGrath was also a significant figure in supporting and encouraging craft and manufacturing – he was important to the survival of Donegal Carpets, the firm that realised his designs for carpets for his major work on the state apartments in Dublin Castle, and for Irish embassies in London, Washington, Paris, Rome and Ottawa.

In terms of new buildings, McGrath’s work in Ireland included the RHA Gallagher Gallery and Southwood in County Dublin. He also designed many other schemes that went unrealised, among them a crescent-shaped office range for Dublin Castle, and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hall. Having demonstrated his mastery of modern architecture in his earlier years, he became an inspirational figurehead for those concerned with architecture and design in Ireland.

The Irish Architectural Archive wishes to acknowledge the support provided for this exhibition by the Australian Embassy in Ireland, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and the Office of Public Works. Special thanks go to Liz D’Arcy, Mary de Chenu, Lisa Godson, Jason McKinstry, Edward McParland, Michael O’Doherty, Nick Robinson, and Klaus Unger.

The exhibition runs until the end of June in the IAA Architecture Gallery, 45 Merrion Square. The Architecture Gallery is open to the public from 10am to 5pm, Tuesdays to Fridays. Admission is free. A short series of free lunch-time lectures will accompany the exhibition, details of which will be announced by the Archive shortly.

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