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Last month it was the 121st birthday of Grace Cossington Smith, one of the most important Australian artists of the 20th century, and a contemporary of Clarice Beckett.

Grace was born in Sydney, and studied under Antonio Dattilo Rubbo, an inspiring and extremely supportive art teacher who encouraged his students to experiment; he affectionately called Grace “Mrs Van Gogh”. Her painting The Sock Knitter, showing her sister knitting socks for the war effort, is considered to be Australia’s first post-Impressionist painting, and she exhibited in galleries from 1915.

Her paintings are notable for their bright patterns and vibrant energy, using careful square brushstrokes to create images of colour shimmering through sunlight. She painted scenes of Sydney, and is famous for her iconic representations of the Harbour Bridge, showing the bridge’s construction. Grace’s Sydney was bustling, busy, exciting; filled with crowds, colour and sunshine. Later in life, she became known for her still lifes and interiors.

Art museums began buying Grace’s work in the 1940s, but she did not become famous until the 1960s, and in 1973 was appointed an Order of the British Empire as an exhibition of her work toured with the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Grace was 81, and let it be known that she would have welcomed recognition a little earlier. She received her OBE while in a nursing home, and by then was too frail to paint any more.

Grace is an English word which can be understood in several different ways. We might think of grace in terms of physical elegance and poise, but there is also social grace, where a person is charming and well-mannered.

The theological concept of Divine Grace is present in several religions. In Christianity, it means the undeserved love and mercy given to us by God – a gift that allows us a share in divinity. Although there are many theological disagreements, nearly all Christians believe that the grace of God is necessary for salvation, and that it is through divine grace that we are able to resist sin.

The word grace comes from the Latin gratia, meaning “kindness, favour, esteem”, ultimately from an ancient root which means “praise, welcome”. The word is related to grateful. Both the secular and spiritual senses of the word grace have connotations of effortlessness – no matter how many lessons in physical movement or etiquette you might have, you can only appear graceful if it seems natural and easy for you. And the grace of God comes not through our own efforts, but is a gift that we are freely given without earning it.

The English name Grace was not originally linked to either of these meanings, but from a Germanic name Grece, meaning “grey”, and pronounced like Grace. However, it quickly became associated with the Latin Gratia or Gracia, to suggest “charming, pleasant”, and it is thought that women with these names would have been known as Grece or Grace in everyday life.

St Gracia of Lerida may have been an influence on the name’s development; she was the daughter of a Spanish Muslim caliph who converted to Christianity and was martyred in the 12th century. Born Zaida, she took Gracia as her Christian name, and is sometimes known as St Grace. There is also an obscure pre-Norman English saint named Grace connected with St Probus of Cornwall; some speculate that she was his wife, and others that she was a great lady who supported him in his ministry. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that she ever existed.

In Greek mythology, the Graces are goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, creativity, and fertility, patronesses of amusements and festivities. Despite this seemingly frivolous purview, in some mysterious way they were connected to the Underworld and the secrets of the afterlife – perhaps a taste of the joys which might await us on the other side. In Renaissance art, they are usually depicted as three beautiful young women who are either naked or lightly draped in diaphanous garments, and often embracing each other or clasping hands.

These attractive figures might have influenced the choice of the name Grace from the late Middle Ages, but it is usually thought that after the Reformation, Grace would have been given by Puritans as a virtue name, with the religious meaning in mind.

Grace is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #29 in the 1900s, left the Top 100 in the 1940s, and reached its lowest point in the 1970s at #373. It then began climbing steeply, around the time of Princess Grace of Monaco’s death, and reached the Top 100 in 1988 at #89.

By 1991, Grace was in the Top 50 at #45, and in the Top 20 by 1998 at #13 – the highest point it had ever gained historically. Grace reached the Top 10 in 2002 at #9, however it did not stay there long, and stabilised just outside the Top 10, where it remains today.

Currently Grace is #12 nationally, #11 in Victoria, #14 in New South Wales, #12 in Queensland, #11 in Western Australia, #9 in Tasmania, #11 in the Northern Territory and #10 in the Australian Capital Territory. Highly popular in all states and territories, it is also a Top 100 name in other English-speaking countries, and is most popular in Northern Ireland and Ireland at #3 and #4 respectively. Its popularity in Britain and New Zealand is much the same as here.

Grace is a true timeless classic; a solid choice as an English name which has never gone out of fashion or fallen into disuse in nearly a thousand years. Yet it is more popular now that it has been at any other time in Australia’s history, making it a contemporary classic which feels both traditional and up-to-date.

Grace is a beautiful name with simple elegance; sophisticated and unpretentious, and even more popular as a middle name. It’s a saint, a princess, a goddess, and millions upon millions of ordinary women throughout the ages. There may be many little girls named Grace, but that’s no reason why your daughter cannot join their ranks. Gracie is a common pet form, and quite a few parents are choosing this as the name on the birth certificate.

Grace received an excellent approval rating of 83%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2014. People saw the name Grace as a beautiful timeless classic (29%), simple yet sophisticated (18%), suitable for all ages (18%), and intelligent and professional (11%). However, 6% thought it was too popular. Nobody thought the name Grace was harsh or ugly.

(Picture shows Church Interior by Grace Cossington Smith, c 1941)