The work of British mid century sculptor Brian Willsher echoes the work of the St Ives school; there is a fluidity in the forms of Willsher’s sculptures that is reminiscent of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. We ask Collector Gary Howard about what first drew him to Brian Willsher’s sculptures and the friendship that followed.
How many Brian Willsher sculptures have you collected, and when did you first meet him?
I started collecting Brian Willsher sculptures about ten years ago, buying them at boot sales and on eBay. But I didn’t know too much about him then; I just liked his work. Now, I have about 40 Brian Willsher pieces. I first met Brian Willsher in 2005. By chance, he was delivering a sculpture to a neighbour, who was a collector. The neighbour had noticed some of his sculptures on my windowsill, and brought him to meet me. A friendship developed from there. As our relationship developed, I’d go to see him every three or four weeks, have a chat and buy a piece. We became friends over time, and he started giving me pieces as gifts. Around 12 of these were small children’s pieces that Willsher gave to our young daughters.
What attracted you to the work of Brian Willsher?
Initially, the form of Brian Willsher’s sculptures, with their concentric rings, instantly attracted me. I felt that they were intriguing. I liked the feel of them, they’re tactile. I like wood as a material, and I like the way that they’re not lacquered or varnished and the way they fade in the sun over time.
The earlier sculptures appeal to me most, from the period 1967–1979. The shapes are more interesting. You can see the influences of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Lynn Chadwick (links). I’m particularly fond of his early painted examples. As his work became more popular and it started appearing in galleries, then I think it became more formulaic. After 1979, his sculptures became far more regular in form, much bigger and much simpler. The materials changed too: early on he used a good quality teak or iroko or mahogany; later he started using cheaper timbers like poplar. They become more simplistic I think. I don’t collect anything after 1980.
How easy is it to find a Brian Willsher sculpture?
I think I’ve bought one Brian Willsher on the open market in the last five years. It was an early standard lamp base, dating from 1966. Brian kindly signed it for me. His sculptures occasionally turn up on eBay and in dealer’s showrooms.
Brian Willsher: a sculpted life
Born in Catford, South London, Brian Willsher studied engineering between 1945 and 1948, and then drifted through a succession of occupations, before finally qualifying as a dental technician.
In 1954, he suffered a near fatal motorbike accident, and spent six months convalescing. During this time he began making plaster objects using techniques learnt through dentistry, and resolved to commit his time to some form of creative work.
In 1956, Brian Willsher began working with wood, applying his experimental forms to lamp bases. This fusion of abstract shapes with everyday domestic articles resulted in immediate success. Geoffrey Dunn, of Dunn’s department store in Bromley, Kent, offered him his first exhibition in their shop window, which they called ‘Brian Willsher’s Things’.
Shortly afterwards Christopher Heal, of 1960s department store Heal’s, asked him to supply table lamps and lighting for his flagship store on Tottenham Court Road, London. These proved very popular, but Brian Willsher tired of the monotonous production process and of his neighbours’ complaints about the noise of the circular saw. He purchased a bandsaw, which was much quieter, and which allowed him to pursue what he called ‘doodling in wood’.
This was the start of Brian Willsher’s career as a sculptor. In 1966, Heal’s give him his first solo exhibition, which proved so successful that a second one followed in 1967. In June 1968, Customs and Excise disputed the status of Brian Willsher’ work, claiming that his creations were ornaments rather than sculpture, and therefore subject to a 40% manufactured goods tax. Some respected names leapt to his defence, as was reported in The Guardian: ‘Here’s pure sculpture, indeed! More than that, memorable sculpture!’, wrote Sculptor Sir Henry Moore.
In spite of such praise, Brian Willsher refrained from showing his work in commercial galleries throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, instead subsisting by selling sculpture for nominal sums directly from his studio and market stalls in Hampstead and Covent Garden.
By 1989, Brian Willsher was encouraged to start showing in galleries again, with exhibitions at the Belgrave and Boundary Galleries, London in 1990. He was also commissioned to produce larger works, including pieces that can still be seen in Lewisham Hospital. Brian Willsher continued to produce sculptures until 2005, when ill health prevented any further work.
Useful information and links
For more on Brian Willsher, see MidCentury issue 01