Excerpts from an interview by Bridget Wilkins talking to Michael Casson, Sheila Casson and Walter Keeler at Wobage Farm, Herefordshire. 5th Sept 2002.
BW: Could you tell me what comes to mind when I ask you about Kits or Eileen Nisbet? (Kits was Eileen Nisbet’s nickname)
MC: … I had been teaching two years after the war, when I went back to Hornsey to take painting. I was soon diverted to pottery which I'd done two years before, very badly (laugh). In that class were Kits, Sheila and some others including Victor Margrie... Kits and I formed a good friendship which has lasted one way and another until she died… I don’t know whether you know anything of her education during the war, which was nil. I’m sure you know about her abilities as a potter although for once I would use the term ceramicist, because she wasn’t a potter in the pot-making sense. She was probably the best at drawing in her year. She has two brothers, they lived in Tottenham, North London, during the war she just didn’t go with the other evacuees, just didn’t get on the bus. She stayed in London, some schooling, mainly not. When she came to Hornsey she had none of the qualifications that we had, in terms of matriculation and so on, so when she came to do her pedagogy a year later on, she had no qualifications.
She had an elder brother, James Hull, who was one of Britain’s first abstract painters…James died young, so did Eileen’s other brother. James exhibited at Gimpel Fils, he was pretty well known in his day, so Eileen always had a background that none of us had…Kits’ brother was avant-garde, at the cutting edge of painting of his day, that’s late forties, early fifties. So Kits… took a lot of notice of Jimmy, she was very proud of Jimmy as a painter…She went to the Central (School of Art) after she had her son. The course at the Central, like Cardiff, Leeds and Goldsmiths had introduced Basic Art, and this was absolutely manna from heaven for Kits, because it brought in all her background of abstraction, the juxtaposition of colours, of torn pieces, arbitrary things to form patterns and so on. She used to come home to us, because we were all living together, and tell us what William Turnbull, the teacher there was doing at the Central at that time. I don’t think it’s possible to understand Kits’ work without knowing about her brother James and her love of the idea of Basic Art… Kits and Jimmy where always about the Bauhaus and the experiments there, I don’t think it’s possible to see how she turned from a Hornsey type potter… into the sort of artist she did, without knowing those two cardinal aspects of her life.
So my memory of her was of the plaid skirt she wore for years and years because we had clothes coupons, rather like Sheila’s dog-tooth coat she wore for years and years, and my corduroys and duffle coat which fell off in the end.(Laugh) Also having to help her with essays that we had to write, and writing history of art, which she was probably as bad at as Sheila, Sheila says she is, whereas I know that in terms of art, we were on a different planet. She was just in a different world from me, so those memories come back, good times, especially when we all got together when Alan (Nisbet) came on the scene.
WK: The thing about Eileen was that she was not the sort of person who would go and promote herself in any way, she was very self-effacing and although somewhere inside she knew that what she was doing was good and worthwhile she wasn’t able to convince other people that it was good and worthwhile and carry it out into the world and to sell it and make a living from it…
MC: I’m sure that was because she was ahead of her time. If she’d been doing that ten years later, let alone now, she would have had fantastic coverage. …There was nobody else doing that sort of thing, Gordon Baldwin who, again, come out of the Basic Art thing was doing his early pots and things, but there were very few others, especially those flat things, those porcelain things she did later, they were unique, nobody else was doing it and there was no coverage for it. There was no Crafts or Ceramics Review, they didn’t start until ’73…I agree with the self-effacing too, but that didn’t help either.
BW: How did she work? What was the actual process? Did she do any drawings?
MC: Oh yes! Drawing all the time, as a student too. Ken Clark used her in his book on ceramics when she was still a student, because her drawing was of a different order, so yes, always drawing and she’d work from drawings, altering them as the clay took over but nevertheless always drawing. I can remember her notebooks when she was a student at Hornsey. Her life drawing, wonderful…
BW: And yet she expressed that in three dimensions in ceramic form.
MC: It’s funny that you say three dimensions. I think a lot of her work is two-dimensional. When she made pots, literally vessels, they had a difference from other people’s, but they were difficult for her. I see those as not three-dimensional.
SC: You mean they should be seen from one side.
MC: Yes, they don’t have what a vessel has, the rotundity. The movement in a wheel-made vessel is different from these. These have movement for the eye to follow through, but not the same as a thrown vessel.
WK: Yes, she’s dealing with planes, the dishes were not so much about the concavity of the piece, but the fact that it offered up the opportunity to make a pattern within that shape.
MC: Yes, that’s right.
WK: And with these porcelain pieces which have been made flat and then moved into a three-dimensional territory by placing one over another and placing spacers in between.
BW: Why do you think she didn’t become a painter? Why did she choose ceramics?
MC: I think for one thing I’m sure she had to go to Hornsey, her local art college. However, Hornsey at that time was dire; remember the staff? …Ruskin Spear would have been avant-garde to this lot. No, she could never have survived. I mean, the best painting that came out of Hornsey at that time was Social Realism…they were able to do that without being put down by the staff…
BW: I wondered whether it was also because Kits was a woman in what was a world dominated by men. Did that have any effect on her?
SC: I don’t think it was a major thing, no. You were right, women were dominated by the men then, but I don’t think it had much effect. No, I don’t think that it would have touched Kits. I think she just did her own thing, definitely.
BW: I was thinking more of the people who were organizing the exhibitions. I know she was in a number of exhibitions, but whether that might have been an issue at all?
SC: I don’t think there was an issue exactly. It was a reflection of the time.
MC: I think of all the arts, women had a better deal in ceramics than many of the others. Today, it’s about fifty-fifty, maybe it’s just because I’m a man that I’m saying that. When I think of potters, I think of at least as many women as men.
SC: There were a few dominant women!
MC: Could I just mention Kits’ favourite painter. Paul Klee. The dish we have upstairs is called ‘Taking a Line for a Walk’.
BW: What particularly do you think she saw in Paul Klee?
SC: Well it’s the abstract patterns.
MC: And subtlety, delicacy too. Paul Klee to me is someone who is very delicate. She loved painters generally.
BW: What other painters?
WK: Victor Pasmore?
MC: I don’t remember.
BW: Ben Nicholson?
MC: Yes! Yes the drawing, absolutely…She had a phase of drawing kitchens with milk bottles, sieves with all the lovely holes, and she would draw them as if she was seeing them through Ben Nicholson’s eyes.
BW: Alan also mentioned later on in her life, (Antoni) Tapies.
MC: Ah yes, that’s interesting… far more earthy. I like him. That was quite late.
BW: Alan…said that she was interested in the textures on the door (of their Cornish barn). And we talked about Tapies. To me that is very different from the precision of her drawing.
MC: Now that was much later, this is the eighties. Who knows what that might have lead to.
*'The Potter's Manual' and 'Practical Pottery and Ceramics' by Kenneth Clark.