Excerpts from an interview by Bridget Wilkins talking to Kathryn Hearn, Rob Kesseler and John Chipperfield, who are senior staff at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London. Nov. 2002.
BW: Can you explain the capacity in which you knew Eileen Nisbet?
KH: Well I knew her the least, and it was probably for about three years…It was interesting coming to Central Saint Martins and realising that I was going to be working with her; having had a photograph of her work on my workshop wall for years previously; one that never changed because it was… a really important image for me. I worked with her at Central Saint Martins where we had the BA Ceramics course. I was first of all a colleague as Senior Lecturer then Course Director and she was First Year Tutor and third and second year also. Within a management (capacity)… she came across as quite quiet, but she was assertive in meetings…she had a very strong view of what students ought to achieve in the first year and what they needed and how they should get that.
On a more personal level I found her enormously supportive, very generous, with me, she made me feel more confident because she had such belief in me I think, which is really important. Particularly that first year when I arrived, we had a year that was, the year from hell really, there were some great students in that year, but as a year, they had a certain dynamic that really gave us a tough time. When the results came in, I had to hand them out, and she asked if she could support me as I was handing them out, and I said "Eileen are you going to throw yourself in front of me to protect me?" and there was a sense that she might have done that. Yes, she was enormously supportive...She valued and could see worth in other people and particularly students’ work. (She had) a belief in things on the course that ought to be absolutely essential…but when it referred back to herself and her own confidence level she always felt very reticent, as though she wasn’t good enough… What is noticeable about Eileen is that she made very close connections with the women on the course… she recognised vulnerability in people and was always there to support that aspect of them. I think particularly women.
RK: I think the male students on the course recognised her vulnerability and were perhaps less sympathetic towards her, so were less attracted to her in terms of her type of teaching.
KH: …Her belief in the Ceramics course at Central Saint Martins was extraordinary, I would mention this as something that she felt very strongly attached to, right to her death, she felt as though she belonged and it was so important.
JC: She was part of the initial development, she was a student here on the NDD course, and came back as a teacher. She contributed to it enormously, she was a driving force, a quiet force but it was very much there. I mentioned how she used to blush sometimes, she used to thump the table when she wanted to put a point across, but it was always a metaphorical thumping, it didn’t actually connect with great force, it was the gesture that mattered, but it made the point that she was trying to convey.
RK: She taught me briefly and I only have vague memories of that…mainly aspects of drawing onto ceramic, but I remember her much more closely as a colleague when I started teaching and talking to her about artists that inspired her, over coffee, she was very much steeped in post war arts influences, Nicholson, Pasmore and their feeling for line, movement and shape and a sense of play, surface play across the plane of canvas or paper or in her case a piece of clay. I remember her often coming away from the library excitedly clutching big books of Victor Pasmore, and talking about the images and the quality they had, to do with form and line and it really followed through into her work. Also I went to see her at home in her studio, quite organised in quite a small space, very methodical and careful about getting the quality she wanted, very simple forms of experimenting, small steps but very carefully thought through and appraised.
JC: I first met her in ’65 when she came to teach here as a part-timer, she had been a student here and she told me this funny story, she always used to blush a lot, as if she was embarrassing herself, and because she was so self-effacing and really quite humble, she often didn’t seem to be that dominant a figure and she told me one day that Kathryn’s predecessor, plus one, Gilbert Harding-Green, who ran the course when she was a student here, said to her once, “Excuse me, are you a student here?” and she’d already been here nearly two years.
She started teaching me in the second year and she taught drawing with tremendous sensitivity… which I admired enormously. …At one stage in the third year I remember I was producing a series of porcelain forms which were very stark and clear cut, I did a lot of drawings and I was deliberating as to whether to put a hard edged black and white design on the surface and I talked to Eileen about it, and she encouraged me to do so, so I did and the result was far more dramatic and far more interesting than it would have been without them. I was relaying this story several years later to a group of students; having courage to do something that was risky and I told them how Eileen had encouraged me and I turned to her and she was bright red in the face, there were tears in her eyes and she said “I didn’t think I’d been able to teach you anything”. It was amazing.
KH: I think it was interesting how she used enamels on porcelain, because in a way that was quite controversial you know; people were so purist about what you could and couldn't do and I think she often challenged those boundaries.