Eileen Nisbet: Ceramic Sculptor 1929 - 1990. Life and Work.
Eileen Nisbet occupied a unique space in 20th Century ceramics. At a time when functional pottery dominated, her work was entirely different to that of her contemporaries. In the last fifteen years of her life, she developed a remarkable way of working with porcelain and could be said to be one of the most innovative ceramicists working at the time. In recognition of this, examples of her ceramic sculpture were bought for many private and public collections.
As a child, she grew up in North London, and at the start of WW2, was sent to the bus depot. for evacuation, however, at the last minute she decided to slip away and returned to her family to stay in London during the Blitz. In her formative years she became very close to her older brother James Hull, who had a passion for painting and would, in the early fifties, become one of the first British abstract painters at the cutting edge of the avant-garde movement. It was through James’ influence that Eileen developed a fascination for drawing, abstraction and the teachings of the Bauhaus. She applied to Hornsey College, which was her local art school, but was diverted from the traditional painting department into pottery and stained glass. Here she was to meet fellow student Michael Casson, with whom she would form a lifetime friendship. Then at The Central School of Art she took the Basic Art course, under William Turnbull, followed by the NDD Ceramics course, with Kenneth Clark as her tutor. However, her aspirations as a student were to be a painter and the broader concerns of painting, drawing and sculpture remained the basis of her work. This interest continued after her graduation in 1963, as she carried on making pottery, but it was through experiments with drawing directly into clay, that Nisbet found she could really express herself.
This indicates the appearance of new work as she made it, at certain periods in her career. It's significance will become clear as you read on.
Although she loved pots, Nisbet didn’t enjoy throwing them on a wheel. By making a flatter, press-moulded dish, she generated a gently curving landscape onto which she could try out a number of simple drawings. These were derived initially from the line created by the shifting level of water as it moves around the inside of a tilting vessel and the influence of the work of Paul Klee, taking a line for a walk. The perfection of a rich, semi-matt amber glaze and the distinctive clarity of the linear designs accented by inlaying with deep brown/black oxides, made these dishes very popular - (see ).
In an episode of Michael Casson’s ‘The Craft of the Potter’ (BBC) she can be seen in the process of making some of these lines on a dish. She talks briefly about the relationship between the smooth curve of the dish and the scratched line, while turning the dish in one hand and steering the tool with the other.
"Having decided upon this form, and the use of incised or scratched line, I found I had to learn about how steep that curve was, how quickly it rises while cutting a line, to produce curves and straight lines to order. I wanted the decoration to be a kind of entertainment so that if you only see half the decoration at a glance, it should make you want to see what happens on the other side." EN 'The Craft of the Potter' BBC 1976.
The unwaveringly fluid stroke is a mesmerising sight, and shows the artist completely at one with her medium and personal vision, although by this time she had moved on to an altogether different kind of work.
It was Nisbet’s conversion to porcelain in 1975 that resulted in the most innovative and fruitful period of her career. Having worked with it previously, she had always considered the medium to be limited and disliked its “preciousness”, but at the insistence of Pan Henry at the Casson Gallery that she take part in an exhibition of porcelain, she accepted the invitation as a challenge. The new medium required a totally different approach to her work, the tight structure of fired porcelain gives a facility for strength and thinness to the point of translucency. She found that it could be treated almost like paper. After making a series of porcelain bowls with wide, flat rims, she decided to dispense with all functional aspects and experiment with planar surfaces. These were up-ended to form a sculptural language, which she would develop over the next fifteen years.
Earlier planar works from 1975 to 1977 had no colour applied, relying on light and shade created by varying thicknesses of clay and the interplay of pierced holes, recessed circles and slots. With few exceptions these works were abstract constructions. The sculptures would be shown backlit, to meld the decorative features with the paper-like quality of the ceramic (see ) from the Light and Plane section). Apart from their beauty and innovative technical qualities, this period of work is also notable for its strong links with her earlier training in stained glass; working with light and two-dimensional planes in a three-dimensional territory.
After careful experimentation to fire thin sheets without puckering or distortion, the essential technique that she developed was of assemblage. The finished shapes, which had to be fired flat, were layered vertically by bonding tubular porcelain separators between them. At the time this bonding was considered an outrage although today, the use of strong adhesive in ceramic sculpture is a little more common.
She worked in a meticulous and methodical way, and was very economical. At the outset, each part of a sculpture was made so that it related to other pieces in the work, but often their place within the final composition was altered from that which was originally envisaged. Also it was important that the work be physically stable when placed on a table, a consideration that often flew in the face of the aesthetic. The assembling process was something that Nisbet would take immense pains to get right, occasionally parts were remade with subtle alterations and the first attempts placed in storage.
“When putting shapes together, there’s a very fine line between where one looks good and where it doesn’t. ...Starting with one particular shape means that you have to find others to go with it and everything has to be counter-balanced in the aesthetic and physical sense. Working these relationships out can be quite difficult.” EN. Studio Porcelain by Peter Lane.
Having pushed the boundaries of the new material, Nisbet felt that although the qualities of the porcelain were still important, its translucency as an end in itself was not sufficient. She tried a further series of assemblages first by contrasting the smooth porcelain with the gritty texture of white, grogged stoneware (see ) from the Panels section) and then by using porcelain alone but in thicker slabs. It can be seen from that as usual the intent is not so much a playful mixing of shapes, but like the dishes, a drive to generate more active spaces on which lines and surfaces draw the eye through the implied skipping and rolling of their elements.
The 'Large Game' is one of the first sculptures to have coloured slips applied. Within the limitations of the material, a restricted palette of muted colours with a carefully balanced tonal range had to be devised.
In 1978, the first of the planar pot forms were started, these continued the planar theme but incorporated the rounded silhouette and lip details translated from vessel pottery - (see ).
“The bowls originated through ‘flat’ drawings that I made when I was designing stained glass. The silhouette had to convey all the important details from a single viewpoint. These ceramic bowls (which to me) are like drawings, flat, but showing shape, rims, inside, handle at a glance.” EN. Studio Porcelain by Peter Lane.
'As this pot is not meant to contain anything, I do not need to make it round or join the sides. My visual image is more clear this way.' EN. Statement for Anatol Orient. 1983.
Nisbet continued to use colour in small areas in order to draw and focus the eye. Firstly the bulls eye motif on and then, notably, in stripes on , which abstracted the idea of decoration so that it could fly off the pot like a flag.
"The colour is employed fleetingly, as a suggestion of colour, a mixture of colour, an awareness, rather than to specify 'This is a blue bowl'." EN.
'The painted stripes are used across a suggested round form of the pot or bowl shape in a graphic way and become another form like a flag, flying off the pot and giving a sense of movement to a static form.' EN. Statement for Anatol Orient. 1983.
The inspiration for the sculptures of this period came from diverse sources but particularly from aeroplanes, propellers, flower forms and the pots, which were always favourite. In general, however, her influences were accumulated from experiences, rather than particular themes. She found a visual value in most things, even mundane and seemingly insignificant objects were explored through copious envelope sketches. This discipline of looking and understanding was at the root of all her work. Some of her sketchbook pages give an insight to her working methods and development of ideas.
The quality common to Eileen Nisbet’s work throughout her career was that of a distillation of form to its essence. Her pieces were intended to capture the mood of an object, rather than its image. Of the sculptures she writes –
'This sculpture does not represent a flower, nor is it a 'new' flower, but about a flower. It contains some of the ideas about a plant from a seed with a single wiggling root, transforming into a bud, bursting into flower, showing first signs of coloured petals. In the minds eye, the root then becomes a curling stalk.' EN. Statement for Anatol Orient. 1983.
'With the aeroform pieces she was seeking to achieve a feeling of movement so that "...even though the object has no power to move, it might appear to have just alighted or be about to take off." EN. Studio Porcelain by Peter Lane.
A combination of Nisbet’s enthusiasm for making larger works and the increasing number of requests from international curators resulted in a need to make the sculptures more resilient. Large thin structures would be less resistant to breakage in transit so the slabs were made thicker in proportion to their size and were no longer tapered at the edges. This thickening of the planes opened more possibilities for edge treatment, in particular the developement of a laminar flint-like edge on and later jug forms, but which first appeared on in 1978.
The search for new materials and technical refinement became an intrinsic part of the making process. After a series of tests with various additives to give a matt surface, Nisbet found that ceramic enamels which had recently become available, could be used on porcelain to achieve bright translucent colours similar to watercolour. Much to the disapproval of ceramic purists, from 1985 onward she would use ceramic enamel exclusively for applied colour work (see ).
Specially developed shard-patterned marquetry-like elements, used in patches on some of the later jug form, counterpoint the painting and inlaid line work. Gently curving handles were made possible by fine tuning the firing temperature; bringing subtle and varying shadow detail to the flat planes. The 'Loop Handled Jug’ has a lyrical twist to the handle and has a lip formed in the otherwise flat plane of the body.
Carefully selected natural slate roof tiles from Nisbet’s converted Cornish barn were incorporated as shadows or backdrops into several pieces including ‘ the exquisite from 1988, which also has fine surface detail made by filling the scratches from the light application of very coarse sandpaper with coloured slip. The techniques behind the texture of colour on the and on many of the pots made in 1989 and 1990, are more the work of a fine artist and printmaker.
"I love pots - although I never make them - especially round ones. ...People usually think of potters as making things that are round, on the wheel or by hand. I find this very restrictive so I tend to use clay for what it will allow me to do. I like thinking of clay just as a material for expressing ideas." EN. Studio Porcelain by Peter Lane.
One of her last works is a plain, flat rectangular porcelain panel onto which a painting was made (see ). This was to be the start of a new series, but sadly, her health deteriorated. Her death came at a time when Eileen’s career was very much gathering momentum, both in terms of creative development and recognition.
The Central School of Art in London (now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) also lost one of their most committed and inspirational teachers, a role she fulfilled from 1963 to the end of her life. Apart from providing first-hand practical support, her enthusiasm and empathy gave her the ability to quickly locate a student’s true potential and to then draw it out, without imposing her own ideas. In addition to her duties as a Senior Lecturer, she was a driving force in the development of the ceramics course and had strong views about what students ought to be able to achieve and what the course should provide for them.
Eileen Nisbet’s sensitivity and self-effacement made her a very special teacher, but perhaps these traits also contributed to her modest efforts at self-promotion. Her commitments were firstly to her work and her students, and commercial success was more a by-product than a priority. This aspect of her character and the uniqueness of her work, coupled with the narrow media coverage of ceramics at the time, has meant that Eileen Nisbet has become somewhat overlooked.
Peter Lane – Studio Porcelain Contemporary Design and Techniques. Pitman.
Bridget Wilkins – Audio interviews with Michael Casson, Sheila Casson, Walter Keeler, Kathryn Hearn, John Chipperfield, Rob Kesseler.