Tuesday, September 1, 2009

When the Hero is a Heroine

Let me pick up that train of thought, started in the last post. It has been said that the field of illustration had been a decent place for women to advance, "back in the day".
So then why is it when you think of, say, the top ten "Golden Age" illustrators, chances are still good that you'll think of 10 men first? Let me restate slightly—women could do well in illustration, while it was extremely difficult in other professional fields—odds were still stacked against them. But if you look at other high profile professions of the day, there are few that had as many women in the top ranks as illustration. Today it is more balanced than many fields, and there are many great women designers and illustrators.

While Elizabeth Shippen Green (last post)is on my list of favorites, this illustrator is a real rare find, and likely unknown to more of you. Maybe a decade ago, I came across a book of Russian Fairy Tales. Though I saw some really great work in it, it passed quickly through my hands, and I lost track of it—but found it again this past month. The author's name is R. Nisbet Bain, and the illustrator is listed as Noel L. Nisbet. (1887-1956) That "Nisbet" seems a strange coincidence, but I don't know if there is anything really to that—regardless—The book is from about 1916(?), it has 16 plates, 4 of them color. Wow. These pieces really knock me out. How could I not know this person? How come I can't find (more) info on them? Well, I looked, and dug, and I did find some info. Noel, is actually Laura Noel Nesbit. I was also able to find that she was an active Victorian painter, married to painter Harry Bush in 1910, and only spent a short time in the field of illustration, working on books from about 1910-1917, and then returning to larger works.

But what great stuff she put out. Rarely have I come across successful black and white work that exhibits this level of complexity (maybe only Bernie Wrightson in the last 50 years). The use of values achieved through line-work is stellar, each ink piece feeling like it was studied and prepped as a full blown painting. The color work has a very smooth and even pallete, warm, but not overdone. A small book she did in 1917, The Enchanted Lochan, has just 4 color plates, but feels as if it could easily have inspired a character like Conan. (Check out that last image with the Druid...)
I will be digging for more of her illustration work. Here's a larger than usual sampling, from Russian Fairy Tales, Cossack Fairy Tales, and The Enchanted Lochan. Again—Wow.

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