Boar's Head

Robert Hogg Nisbet - Newspaper Article

Boar's head

About the only thing Robert Nisbet hasn't learned is How to Live on Twenty-four Hours a Day

New Haven Register, Sunday, October 28, 1951.

About the only thing Robert Nisbet of South Kent has not learned to do-and do well-is how to live on twenty-four hours a day. He is time poor. Richer than most of us in so many ways, there just isn't enough time in the till to meet the pressing demands of his talents.

"They say a man slows up as he grows older," says one of his neighbors, "but Bob Nisbet has been speeding up for years. He is busier than a centipede with the hives." "Says another neighbor, a fellow artist, "The common mistake people make about Bob is thinking of him as one man. He isn't as you'll discover, when you go over there. He's quintuplets."

A big sign reading NISBET down on the main road tells you where to leave the highway. Climb the hill to the big lodge-like home of the Nisbet's and you are met by the charming Mrs. Nisbet and her distinguished husband. They are cordial but not effusive. The feeling is rural and tranquil. Fog hides the top of the mountain behind the house and fog remnants hang placidly in the valley to the west. This, you tell yourself, is what the doctor ordered-a quiet morning in the country.


Invited inside, you settle in a deep, comfortable chair in the living room. Books line the walls from floor to ceiling-some four thousand in all. Mrs. Nisbet has remained outside. Mr. Nisbet drops into a chair and looks at you though the top lens of his tri-focals. (Not bi-focals-tri-focals, which is your first warning of what lies ahead.) The big man is silent, waiting. This is your party.

So you venture a comment on books. "Wonderful things, books" or something equally inane. Instantly your host is on his feet, telling you about his books, taking one from a shelf, another and another. Each of the 4,000 seems to have a special meaning for him. No doubt about it, he loves books. You've stumbled, you think, upon his great weakness.

But you aren't here to talk about books. The man is a celebrated artist. You catch him as he reaches for another book. "I wonder if I could see your studio?"

He turns his back on the book shelves, brushes his hands and gives you a broad smile. Behind the tri-focals his eyes are shining. The books are forgotten. "The studio is where I live," he says. "Come along."

Barn-sized with a pitched ceiling, almost all of one side a great skylight, the studio is less a studio than a museum. Paint boxes, an easel, stacked canvases, an etching press, all the miscellaneous paraphernalia of a painter and etcher. Guns, pistols, bows, arrows, the head of an extinct species of elk, snowshoes, a powder horn, mineral specimens, a collection of sea shells and unnumbered other unrelated objects are in evidence.


But all these are registered photographically on the mind in a single glance. What catches and holds your eye is a big canvas on the far side of the room. It is a sweep of sky, sea, and a bit of beach. That is all. No sail breaks the horizon, no bird hangs in the air, no human figure mars the beach. Here is stark natural beauty without tricks. Looking at it from the doorway across the room, a feeling of loneliness and a sense of your infinitesimal place in the universe creeps over you-all seen and felt against a vocal background. He is telling you about other artists whom he admires, about art in general.

"But this painting-" you say, trying to hold your ground. He comes and stands besides you, silently working his way back from art and other artists in his own work. "That is Chatham Shoals" he says at last. "It was awarded the National Academy's Potter Palmer Memorial Maring Prize of $1,000. As I was saying-."

It isn't easy, for he is always far ahead of you, always on the point of moving to something else; but you do persuade him to show you his paintings-those still in his studio, at least-and to tell you something about his art career.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, he entered the Rhode Island School of Design where he was eight, later studied in New York and abroad, taught at Brown University, was president of the Art Students League of New York and is still an honorary and life member. He was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design in 1920 and a National Academician (N.A.) in 1928. He is an Artist Life Member of the National Arts Club, Lotus Club, Salamagundi Club, and the Providence Art Club.


One of the incorporators of the Society of American Etchers, he is still an active member of that group as well as the Philadelphia Society of Etchers, Artist Fund Society, Artist Fellowship. These he whips off more or less mechanically, but there is unmistakable pride in his voice when he tells you he is president and an active worker in the Kent Art Association.

His work has won three National Academy awards, the Talcott Prize of the Exhibition of Living American Etchers, Kate W. Arms Memorial Prize of the Society of American Etchers, the National Arts Club (Painting) Prize, the Bryan Prize for the Best American Print, Sixth International Print Makers Exhibition, and many others. And today, among other places, he is represented by etchings and painting in the Bibliotheque National, Paris, France; Yale University, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Library,; National Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, and Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Brooklyn (N.Y.) Museum, Milwaukee Museum, Detroit Museum, University of Nebraska, Oberlin College, the Art Council of New York City, Lotus Club and National Arts Club.

His voice fades. He strides down the room and looks up at the wall where hang the 80 guns of his remarkable collection, ranging from .22 caliber to Springfields and Krags and including six muzzleloaders and 20 pistols. He is now definitely and finally through with talk about art in any media whatever. You have the notion that he has mentally brushed his hands again. Art? What's art? His mind has switched to guns and his enthusiasm is running at a high pitch.


He takes a rifle from the racks. "I used this in the Seagirt Match in 1928." It is a .22 caliber, with a telescopic sight, the rifle with which he made a world's record by shooting 72 consecutive 10's-that is, placing 72 consecutive shots within the smaller of the three circles on a standard rifle target, at 100 yards. He also won th Remington Match with a score of 399 out of a possible 400; and, in 1932 the John Wallace Gillies Memorial Trophy with a 396 out of a possible 400.

But you are having trouble reconnecting art and marksmanship. "Isn't that an odd combination?" you ask?

"Perhaps," he says, "but for me shooting is a counterbalance. Art makes no exacting demands on the artist. Shooting does. Either you're accurate with a rifle or you aren't any good. When I was shooting in competition, I expected results. The only thrill I knew was when I missed the bullseye."

Bob Nisbet learned to shoot as a boy with flying ducks as targets. Years later when he had established himself as an artist and had the time and inclination to take up a hobby, he began shooting again and went from rifles to pistols.

Rifle or pistol, he was a good man and shot against the best in the field-including Jack Lacey of Winchester's. "I shot against Lacey in Torrington on one occasion and was sure I had won the match. I didn't, though. It was a tie." Still later he became interested in muzzleloaders and won a gold medal every time he shot in the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association competitions.


During World War II he was a commissioned rifle instructor and still teaches an occasional class. "Every boy should be taught to handle a gun properly," Bob Nisbet declares. "Of 5000 gun fatalities last year, about half happened indoors. Many of those who did the shooting didn't know it was loaded? Yet we have never had a single accident of any kind in the N.R.A. rifle matches. Shooting in an N.R.A. match is safer than ping-pong. Accidents with guns are caused-they don't just happen."

Your eyes wander from the guns to a sling of arrows hanging on the wall. "Now there's a sport for you," Mr. Nisbet says. "Look here…" He crosses an enormous cabinet in one corner of the studio and opens the doors. It is packed with great bows and arrows. "I do very little of that now. Too lazy. Pulling a string on a 40 or 50 pound bow all afternoon is hard work and right now I enjoy this sort of thing more."

"This sort of thing" is on a drawing board beside him. It looks like the combination of circle and angle and minute figures the atom bomb boys use to explain problems in nuclear fission to other atom bomb boys. Question: What is it? You wouldn't bat an eyelash if he told you he and Einstein have been collaborating on some ultra-high mathematics. But he denies any competence as a mathematician.


"Never was any good at it." He says flatly. "But I know a little about architecture and I'm deeply interested in the secrets of the old cathedral builders. They say today it's impossible to square a circle. All right, if you want to split hairs over words, you can't square a circle. But as a practical matter, the men who designed famous cathedrals of the Old World did a lot of things they say you can't do today and they could and did square the circle. Look -"he pulls up a high stool and sits down at the drawing board-"I'll show you how they did it."

You watch, fascinated in a foggy sort of way, until he lifts his pencil from the paper and looks up smiling. "There-satisfied it can be done now?" You cover your ignorance with a single well chosen word, "Completely!"

You haven't touched his activities as an amateur mineralogist and the mineral and sea shell collections are not far behind. You haven't gotten into his War II program when he was Kent's chief air raid warden, State forest fire warden, rifle instructor, and captain of a State Guard Reserve Company, when all telephone calls for all services cleared through his home-thanks to Mrs. Nisbet and her organization of women of the community. You haven't been able to get around to the details of his rowing, hockey playing and fly-fishing days. You know he took up wood engraving last year, and it hasn't been mentioned.

But all this will have to go by the board, for you have one important question left: "I understand you're active in the Masonic Order…"

There's that quick responsive smile again as he turns his back on the drawing board. Books, art, guns, archery, the old cathedral builders, and all else is forgotten. "It's a wonderful organization," he says and his enthusiasm is mounting once more. "Being one of 45,000 men in Connecticut working together toward the same worthy ends is a grand experience. For example…"


But you pin him down to the record and learn that he was raised in St. Luke's Lodge No. 48, Kent, in 1911, became Master of that lodge five years later and, in 1936 was elected District Deputy of the Second Masonic District and a Life Member of the Grand Lodge of Connecticut. He was appointed Grand Junior Steward of the Grand Lodge in 1944 and has progressed steadily since toward the highest Masonic office in the state.

Robert Nisbet is now Deputy Grand Master of Masons in Connecticut. If the April elections of the order follow the usual course, he will be the next Grand Master. He makes no reference to this, but his many Masonic friends do and they are eager for the day. An organization headed by a man with Robert Nisbet's talents, interests, hobbies, ideas, and energy will not stand still.

It is early afternoon. The Nisbets walk to your car with you. The fog has lifted from the mountain top and a light breeze has swept it out of the valley. The scene is still rural and tranquil-but you're practically exhausted. It isn't your fault. You've done your best to mix relaxation and business, and failed. On the other hand, it would be unfair to blame Bob Nisbet. Can he help it if he happens to be quintuplets?

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