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Talking Design: Eileen Nisbet. by Bridget Wilkins.

A paper presented at the Design History Society annual conference at The University of Hertfordshire, 3 - 5 September 2009.

Bridget Wilkins Affiliation: Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London. Email: bridgetwilkins@btinternet.com

Note: References are to oral history quotes only. Other sources will be referenced if the paper is selected for publication.

This is a case study of the ceramicist, Eileen Nisbet, 1929 -1990, whose work is not well known. Does it however justify being ‘well known’ and represented in the documentation of craft history? How might that history be different if Nisbet were represented and what are the implications of her exclusion or inclusion in relationship to the documentation and writing of design and craft history? Why is Nisbet not well known?

A discussion of methodology was a significant part of the first MA in Design History, developed in the early 1980s at Middlesex Polytechnic, but it still needs to be questioned and considered as much now as it was then. This study of Nisbet contributes to these discussions of methodology raised by using oral history as source material.

Fig 1 A small number of Crafts magazines show illustrations of Nisbet’s work. Fig 2 The greatest coverage is by Peter Lane in Ceramics Review in 1980, which also features her work on the cover Fig 3. Lane enthusiastically describes her individual and unusual working methods in porcelain. Kenneth Clark illustrates her work in his book ‘The Potter’s Manual, 1983 Fig 4. Nisbet’s pieces look unusual for this date of the late 1970s and early 80s and also, although appearing in traditional crafts magazines like Crafts and Ceramics Review, seemed to have an affinity to some more fine art work like that of the pop artists or even the paintings of Ben Nicholson rather than the craft ‘vessels’ of contemporary studio potters. This confusion over identity is further exemplified by Lane captioning the illustrations of her work in his article as ‘porcelain objects’.

Nisbet had taught at the Central School of Art and Design in London, so, considering there was so little documentary coverage of her work one solution was to resort to oral history, particularly questioning people who had known her and worked with her to discover what memories they had. Initially the ceramics staff at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, were asked casually about her and replied that ‘she was brilliant’, which confirmed beliefs that her work was worth further investigation. The majority of the following material was obtained from oral history interviews.

Latterly, Nisbet had moved with her husband Alan, from London to Cornwall, where they lived in a very large barn in Launceton, and despite her early death, aged 61, in 1990, Alan still lived there. In visiting him I saw many pieces Fig 5 of very fragile porcelain work meticulously wrapped, sometimes in socks and knitted toys for protection. This interview then led onto introductions to more groups of people: Sheila and Mick Casson, who had been students with her, Walter Keeler who taught with her at Harrow, and the Central St Martins staff who also taught with her. These people are from different generations and different aspects of her working life. Much material was collected from interviews with these people, enabling a fuller description of her work and working methods. Many descriptive phrases that follow are quotes from the interviews.

At Launceton, there were about 50 pieces of work. Fig 6 These ranged from the early amber dishes, ‘traditional bowl type of things’ to a variety of other work in very thin porcelain including games Fig 7 and aeroplanes Fig 8. It was possible to see a development away from bowls into the porcelain ‘table sculptures’. Alan commented that these pieces were ‘sought after’ and the variety showed Nisbet had very great imagination and certainly was not in the genre practised by other contemporary studio potters. The quantity and variety of the work also was unexpected.

Drawing was a significant part of Nisbet’s working process Fig 9 and in looking at the work the concern with line and form was evident. The path of lines develops in the early amber dishes to the path of the ball in the games to the juxtaposition of one plane of porcelain overlapping another in later work like the aeroplanes or jugs. She drew extensively and obsessively, and relied on this to form her work. Her work was called ‘2D’ by Mick Casson, Fig 10 who felt the building up and overlapping of planes and the requirement to view the piece fully frontally took it away from being a three dimensional piece. Her jugs are recognisable as jugs but in no way could they contain anything or be called ‘vessels’ Fig 11.

Some work also involved even further experimentation, especially where, unusually at this time, enamel was used on porcelain Fig 12. The porcelain itself is paper thin and takes on a translucent quality reminiscent of stained glass, which Nisbet studied while a student at Hornsey. Also at Hornsey she was in the cohort of some of the first students exposed to the newly introduced Bauhaus type of curriculum, involving more experimentation and consideration of basic form and shape (H). She reveled in this, while others like the Cassons wondered what making shapes with torn paper had to do with making a teapot.

Nisbet’s work usually is narrative, interpreting everyday objects like planes, flowers and germinating seeds, not seen in other ceramicists of the 1980s. Mick Casson astutely said she was ‘not a potter’. However what he also said was that she made ‘very beautiful things’, and was better than most of her contemporaries, and should be better known’ .

Putting Nisbet’s work in context, Fig 12 it did not fit with the mainstream studio pottery so popular at that time, but it was highly regarded by those self same renowned contemporary practitioners who were studio potters, like Mick and Sheila Casson and Walter Keeler Fig 14, who were interviewed.

From this evidence of Nisbet’s work in the context of other ceramic work done at the same time, she was a pioneer of the move to less functional ceramic ware. She was highly skilled at working with porcelain and made unusual, interesting, feminine, and visually stimulating interpretations of everyday objects. As such she deserves to be better known.

So why is she not better known?

As a person Nisbet, although assertive was quiet. She was more interested in the making process, in which she was meticulous and skilled, rather than in what was to happen to her work once it had been completed.

Also within the time span of most of her work in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, there was little media coverage for crafts, and very few shops or exhibition areas where ceramics could be shown or displayed. Crafts magazine had started in 1973, and Ceramic Review in 1978. In 1978 Fig 15 Crafts carried an article called ‘Sculptors in limbo’ which questioned ‘when do ceramics become sculpture?’ This article showed an illustration of a piece of Nisbet’s work (Figure 15) along with a bronze by Henry Moore and various other pieces by ceramicists including Paul Astbury and Alison Britton. In this article, constantly the question of ‘ceramic sculpture’ or ‘sculptural ceramics’ is raised. This questioning points to the ‘state of the art’ nature of Nisbet’s non vessel work, that it was felt appropriate to include it in such a discussion.

This questioning and discussion of the nature of ceramic work in 1978 was, at that time a popular topic for debate. Previously in 1977, also in Crafts, Edward Lucie-Smith had raised the issue of the possibility of a new vocabulary for craft criticism, especially since, he felt within fine art, conceptual art had abandoned the emphasis on skill and technique. He suggested that craft objects could fill this gap, and practical use maybe was a distinguishing factor between art and craft. Nisbet’s standing porcelain pieces fit, time wise, (between 1975 and 85), neatly in the middle of this debate. They were not to be used practically so veered towards the ‘art’ side. Her brother Jimmy Hull, who she was very close to, was one of the first abstract painters in the UK. It is also an extraordinary coincidence that brother and sister were at the forefront of changes in their discipline. She was in a gap in the middle of these discussions.

Some of the popularity of ceramics in the early 1970s, came from their use as part of a ‘lifestyle’ that had moved, into loose studio ceramics and natural finishes with a touch of Japanese brush calligraphy thrown on. Cranks, as a popular newly opened vegetarian restaurant near Carnaby Street in London, served food in studio pottery bowls and dishes. Although Nisbet as a vegetarian and one of the early ‘whole food’ brigade, fitted in many ways into this lifestyle, however, out of all of her work, it is only her early amber dishes that might be thought to have a practical ‘use’ as a ‘container’. However, she never intended them to be containers, more like drawings in dish form. The move to work with fine paper thin porcelain, rather than rough grog to make the ‘table sculptures’ is another indication that she had moved into what Kathryn Hearn has called the ‘white box’ display era that formed the main thrust generally of later work in ‘ceramics’ (1975-85) and away from ‘lifestyle’ work.

It could be suggested that in the 1980s media coverage was increasing, and Nisbet appeared to be at the cutting edge and so might have more coverage. However there are various factors that were emphasized by the people interviewed that contribute to her not being known. Even though she was a very opinionated person she lacked self confidence and in no way pushed herself. Everyone commented on how she was a real perfectionist and yet a shy person. As with many crafts people, she was deeply involved and concerned with the making process rather than the exhibition of the final piece, so did not get much of the limited ‘media coverage’. People did not know about her or see her work, even people who knew her well did not know how prolific she was and how her work varied. Paper thin fragile work in porcelain is also not the easiest thing to transport or show in exhibitions. Does that make her work less valid as a contribution to history because it was not exhibited extensively or reviewed much or sometimes not even seen? I don’t think so. Instead she needs to be established as a pioneer in history.

Mick Casson said, that she was ‘before her time’ and that ‘if she did that sort of work now she would be really well known’. Hearn, running the Central Saint Martin’s course in ceramics also commented on how much students could learn from her now. These are two very valid uses for craft history. Acknowledgement of pioneers, and student learning. However, perhaps it could be said that history can never be accurate for everyone, which is especially significant when oral history is conducted where the voice and place of the individual is reinstated. In the particular case of Nisbet, the people chosen to be interviewed were all practitioners working in the medium she worked in: clay in one form or another. The practitioners were also from different generations. All admired her work and thought it was significant. So far the historians that have written about the crafts in the 1970s and 80s seem mostly to have looked at written documentary material as sources, which do not feature much of Nisbet’s work, so it has not been considered and included. This pinpoints the real need to question what sorts of sources might be appropriate historically to the research that is being done. Who is to be interviewed?

Investigating Nisbet, contemporary practitioners have given a wealth of information pin pointing the relevance of interviewing people about their memories, and allowing triangulation.

An issue that was crucial to this investigation of Nisbet, was also that of looking and visual analysis. If Nisbet’s work had not been seen, it would not have been realised that it was unusual for the time historically, and that the skill involved in the conception and construction was very complex. The subject would never have been pursued.

Methodology still needs to be reassessed. If oral history is appropriate, what people are we going to interview and why? After many years of trying to get funding for more work to be done on Nisbet and being told ‘she is not well enough known’ or ‘not significant enough’, oral history indicates how significant she is as a pioneer. Her husband Alan died two years ago and the 50 pieces of work left at Launceton, have been inherited by her son Marco. As a tribute to his mother he has made a web site of her work Fig16 which includes some of the interviews. However, it is still a chicken and egg situation since of course people do not know Nisbet’s name. The significance of this research is to encourage a questioning of methodology and consider a closer engagement with the made object. Maybe there should be an alternative history compiled by practitioners which will be different to that compiled by theoreticians?

A matter of insiders looking out or outsiders looking in.

Bridget Wilkins Copyright Sepember 2009


Quotes from interviews

Interviews were conducted with the following people: Alan Nisbet (AN) Eileen Nisbet’s husband, at Foots Barn, North Hill, Launceton, Cornwall. Interviewed 31 January 2002. Mick Casson (MC), Sheila Casson (SC) and Walter Keeler (WK). All close friends of the Nisbets. Mick and Sheila Casson were also students with her at Hornsey College of Art. Interviewed at Wobage Farm, Upton Bishop, near Ross on Wye, Herefordshire (home of the Cassons) 5 September 2002. Kathryn Hearn (KH), Rob Kesseler (RK) and John Chipperfield (JC) who were all senior staff in the Ceramics Department at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. All had taught with Nisbet at that College. Interviewed November 2002.

The following quotes are taken from these interviews. The people quoted are indicated by initials at the start of the quote.

A: (AN) These amber dishes which were quite sought after at the time… people liked them, people commented and wanted to buy them.

B: (AN) She started thinking ‘try to stand something up’, and that really was the start of this much later period work. These table sculptures got progressively more finely wrought.

C: (AN) Very early on, her work didn’t look like any of the other work that was around at the time. … gradually she firmed up on things that she was following in her mind and it really came together in these amber dishes which were quite sought after at the time.

D: (AN) She was always doing these little drawings, ideas would dribble onto paper, little thumbnail sketches, all the time really. I’ve got lots of them hanging about. They’re just little tiny things, almost on the back of an envelope, but a little bit more organised than that.

E: (MC) … Oh yes! Drawing all the time, as a student too. Kenneth 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 never the less always drawing. I remember her notebooks when she was a student at Hornsey. Her life drawing, wonderful.

F: (MC) I think a lot of her work is two dimensional…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.

G: (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 kind of challenged those boundaries.

H: (MC) This wonderful Bauhaus thing, I mean, Kits (Nisbet’s nickname) and Jimmy were always about the Bauhaus and the experiments there. … Sir John Cass school said ‘no we must keep drawing in the academic way’ but Leeds, Cardiff, Goldsmiths the Central were the four as I remember as being the leaders, very exciting and just right for Kits. For someone like me, I thought; ‘what am I doing tearing bits of paper up, I want to make teapots or something’, but for Kits, it absolutely fitted her.

J: (MC) I would use the term ceramicist, because she wasn’t a potter in the pot making sense.

K: (MC) …she made very beautiful things … she was ahead of her time. If she’d been doing that ten years later, let alone now, she would have had fantastic coverage.

L (WK) having this ability to make these wonderful things.

M (WK) what I remember about Eileen is that she was very quiet, she always whispered to you in a kind of complicit way… she is not the sort of person who would promote herself in any way.

N (KH) …she came across as quiet, but she was assertive in meetings, and saying what she felt.

O (MC) She had an older brother, James Hull, who was one of Britain’s first abstract painters … James exhibited at Gimpel Fils …he was pretty well known in his day. So she had a background that none of us had.…Kit’s brother was avante garde, at the cutting edge of paintings of his day… Kit’s had this background and always took notice of Jimmy, she was very proud of Jimmy as a painter.

P (E) Mail from Kathryn Hearn 19.05.09 ‘When I went to the launch of Edmund De Waal’s book launch on Bernard Leach at the Deiwa Foundation last year…I saw the images of where Shoji and Bernard were selling their pots in Japan which was entirely within a domestic setting and I likened it to the lifestyle as we see it today … In the late 60’s early seventies there seemed to be a shift to seeing ceramics as art on white boxes.




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