In Brief

An Irish Artist and a Canadian Activist Join the Ranks of Women on Currency

Designer and architect Eileen Gray appears on a new commemorative coin from the Central Bank of Ireland, and civil rights activist Viola Desmond will be on Canada’s new $10 bill.

Left: the Irish collector coin commemorating Eileen Gray; right: Canadian Black rights activist Viola Desmond (images courtesy Central Bank of Ireland and Bank of Canada)

Come 2020, Harriet Tubman will knock Andrew Jackson, the United States’ seventh president and an owner of over 100 slaves, from his longstanding position on the US $20 bill. Prior to her official appearance on currency though, will be those of Eileen Gray, a modernist Irish designer and architect, on Ireland’s €10 collector coin; and of Viola Desmond, a black Civil Rights pioneer, on Canada’s $10 bill. News of both decisions emerged this week, adding the pair to a relatively small but growing list of influential women commemorated on their home country’s currencies.

Eileen Gray in 1910 (photo via Wikipedia)
Eileen Gray in 1910 (photo via Wikipedia)

Gray, who was one of the first women admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, initially studied painting before moving toward lacquer. She built a reputation asa pioneering furniture designer, creating stark, geometric pieces including chairs, lamps, lacquered screens, and rugs. Over the course of her career, she worked with Le Corbusier and J.J.P. Oud; with the pair’s encouragement, she conceived of two houses in the south of France — most famously, E-1027, an L-shaped villa that is currently undergoing restoration.

The Central Bank of Ireland issued her silver proof coin on Wednesday as a limited edition collector coin, marking the first time a woman appears on an Irish commemorative coin. Designed by another woman, Sandra Deiana, it features one of Gray’s iconic Brick Screens, which were composed of hinged, individually lacquered panels connected by metal rods. As with all Irish coin denominations, the Celtic harp occupies the reverse.

The $10 banknote featuring Viola Desmond will be issued in 2018 as spendable currency, and as an update that replaces the face of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. Desmond was a businesswoman who co-owned a beauty salon with her husband and, in 1946, fought racial segregation through a bold gesture: she refused to surrender her seat in the whites-only section of a Nova Scotia theater.

Viola Desmond Grant of Free Pardon (2010) (Collection de Wanda Robson. Institut Beaton, Université du Cap-Breton, courtesy Bank of Canada)
Viola Desmond Grant of Free Pardon (2010) (collection de Wanda Robson; Institut Beaton, Université du Cap-Breton, courtesy Bank of Canada)

Her protest preceded Rosa Parks’s bus action by nine years (even though she’s often referred to as Canada’s Rosa Parks) and led to her arrest for one night; when released, she was fined for tax evasion on the basis of not paying the one-cent difference between the price of main floor tickets and of those in the balcony, to where the law relegated blacks. She challenged the charges in court in what is the first known legal challenge against racial segregation by a black woman in Canada. She lost, however, an it was only in 2010 — 45 years after Desmond’s death — that the Nova Scotia government granted her a free pardon and apologized for her inhumane arrest.

Desmond was honored two years later on a Canada Post commemorative stamp, but this most recent announcement is a historic one. While other women have previously appeared on Canadian banknotes, from senator Thérèse Casgrain to The Famous Five, Desmond is the first woman to appear on the front of a regularly circulating Canadian banknote aside from a Queen or a Princess. She was selected from a shortlist of five Canadian women, whittled down from thousands of nominees submitted by Canadians as part of the Bank of Canada’s campaign to design a new note printed with an iconic Canadian woman. To further underscore her legacy, images related to the struggle for human rights and freedoms will adorn the reverse.

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