Following a motorbike accident in 1954, while practising for a Brands Hatch race, Brian Willsher spent six months in plaster. With time on his hands, Willsher used his one free arm to experiment with plaster sculpting. Although he initially trained as an engineer, Willsher’s formative years were spent in various jobs that led to a career as a dental technician. However, a visit to Guernsey in 1956 proved to be a turning point in his life, when Willsher made the decision to quit work and pursue his own creative interests.
Willsher’s first works were large wooden salad bowls, which he sold to Dunns of Bromley, that lead on to lampbases. Huge interest in Willsher’s work followed a Heal’s window display of his lampbases. Working long hours and enlisting an assistant to meet the demand, Willsher’s neighbours soon began to complain about the noise so he invested in a band saw to speed up production. When bored, Willsher would ‘doodle’ using off-cuts and the band saw; in turn, this led to his first series of sculptural work. By realigning dissected pieces, his wooden sculptures took on exploded forms, expanding from the base to form intricate three-dimensional works.
With a continued interest from Heal’s and from Liberty, Willsher began to attract a wider audience. Galleries began to show his work, yet despite his acceptance as a sculptor, in 1968, Customs and Excise denied Willsher’s work fine art status, making it subject to the customary forty percent manufacturers’ tax levied upon household decorations. This attracted widespread media attention, with both Henry Moore and Herbert Read rallying to Willsher’s defence. The Guardian published an article entitled, “When is a sculpture not a sculpture”, that objected to the Customs insidious claim that, “It is precisely the ornamental qualities of the sculpture that make it taxable.” Grading Willsher’s work as birdbaths and sundials led the Guardian to argue that, “The two piece abstract Henry Moore sculpture on St. Stephens Green is, in fact, a Garden Ornament.” As a reaction to this furore, Willsher priced a piece of his work showing at the Royal Academy of Arts at just £50. In turn, a Brooke Street gallery showing Willsher’s work found this intolerable and threw him out.
After this period of intense debate and media scrutiny, Willsher backed away from exhibiting and instead sold his work from market stalls in Hampstead, Covent Garden and St. Martins in the Field. Willsher has rarely exhibited, though in the 1980s he showed at the Tate Britain. With exhibitions at the Belgrave and Boundary galleries in the 1990s, and individual projects for hospitals, interest in his work has fuelled demand at auctions and with collectors. Rank Zerox once commissioned 150 of his peg puzzles for a marketing campaign. The puzzles were posted out to prospective clients with one of the pegs missing, the idea being that they should attend the event by invitation to receive the outstanding peg. A neat piece of marketing, although I can’t help but wonder how many incomplete puzzles and lonesome pegs there could be in office storage cupboards. To this day, Willsher is still “doodling three dimensionally” in the South London house he bought in the 1950s. His workshop is a fabulous place; an ingenious sanding machine, built and developed through the years, together with a collection of band saws and saw dust provide an insight to years of experiment, unfinished projects sit awaiting refreshed inspiration, the room poised to welcome the creation of new ‘Things’.