From the Archives: Eileen Hemsoll

Our Archive Assistant has been working hard researching the Permanent Collection at the RBSA to see what she can uncover… here’s HARRIET MOORE on one of the RBSA’s great women artists, Eileen Hemsoll.

The RBSA Collection holds more than 850 artworks across a range of media, and most are by Members and Associates of the RBSA.It’s been interesting to look a little further into the work of a female artist, and Eileen’s works were one of the first to catch my eye. I was intrigued by the different mediums she worked with.


Eileen Hemsoll was born in the Black Country in 1924. She studied at Queen Mary’s in Walsall, before becoming a student at Birmingham College of Arts in 1941. Learning how to draw was an important part of her college life and she went on to teach life drawing and colour at the Handsworth School of Dress Design.

In 1972 Eileen was elected as an Associate Member of the RBSA and in 1978 she was elected a Full Member. She died in 2011.


There were a number of exhibitions in Britain in the 1940s showcasing the work of Continental artists. One of the most notable exhibitions for Eileen was the Picasso and Matisse exhibition of 1945 held at the V&A before touring the country.

Eileen enjoyed the strong and daring use of colour and form by Henri Matisse, which inspired a more spontaneous approach in her own work. She used colour and paint expressively, and her most pleasurable subjects to paint were family life, children and friends. This is clearly demonstrated in her bright and colourful pastel drawing of her friend and fellow RBSA artist Kate Fryer.

Kate Fryer at Home, June 95

Change in media

In 1952, Eileen and her husband Eric emigrated to Canada. The relocation was difficult for Eileen and eventually she returned to England, where she joined a pottery class as a form of therapy. It was at this point that her artwork took a change in style and she became more experimental with ceramics and enamels.

She learned how to ground-lay coloured enamels over white glaze and her distinctive tile pictures and decorated figures gradually came into being.

I find Eileen’s ceramic and enamel work captivating. Night Dancing (1993) was gifted to the RBSA Collection by Eileen herself. The work consists of 12 tiles mounted on plywood. The tiles create a sense of dynamism as your eyes flick across the grid of lines from one figure to another. The use of simplified forms and bold colours futher enhance this impression of energy as they capture the expressive act of dancing and the effects of nightfall.

Night Dancing clearly demonstrates the influence of Matisse and links visually to his work The Dance (1910). Matisse also created tiled pieces featuring figures and so this might have influenced Eileen’s move from canvas to clay.

Enjoy art…

Eileen held successful exhibitions throughout her career, showcasing her skills across a range of subjects and mediums. However, for Eileen the greatest compliment she ever received was from a teenager who said she had put her painting on the wall simply because ‘it made her happy’.

By Harriet Moore

Banner image: Eileen Hempsoll, ‘Garden at Compton Acres, 1984’, oil

#matisse #modernistart #postwarart #womenartists

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