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Eileen Constance Keys (1903–1992)

by Dorothy Erickson

This article was published:

Eileen Constance Keys (1903–1992), potter, was born on 24 December 1903 at Christchurch, New Zealand, fourth of five children of John Martin Mitchell, Cornish-born furniture manufacturer, and his locally born wife Alice May, née Pleasance. Eileen had a Methodist upbringing, with music and craft featuring strongly in her family life. Educated at St Margaret’s College, Christchurch, from the age of sixteen she took art classes at Canterbury College School of Art and trained as a kindergarten teacher in the Montessori method. She travelled to England and Europe in 1924, then worked as an art teacher (1925–29) at Cathedral Grammar School, Christchurch, where she met a fellow schoolteacher, locally born George Eric Maxwell Keys. They married on 24 January 1929 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Christchurch, and had two daughters and a son. From 1939 to 1941, when the family was in London, Eileen furthered her studies at Chelsea School of Art and was also introduced to clay, which became a consuming passion.

In 1947 Maxwell Keys was appointed headmaster of Scotch College, Perth, Western Australia. Eileen began teaching the art to the boys. Faced with postwar shortages, she encouraged her students to source clay from their farms. Experimentation with different Australian clays for her bodies, and minerals and ashes for her glazes, became the focus of Keys’s own work, an enthusiasm that she passed on to her students. She also taught art at the Kindergarten Teachers’ College, and for the Adult Education Board.

Initially Keys worked in the tradition of the French artist-potters, making figures constructed of tin-glazed earthenware. She exhibited these in 1951 in collaboration with the weaver Hilda Stephens, forming still-life groups inspired by the Cubist paintings of George Braque. She found Aboriginal art exciting and for a time decorated her pottery with Aboriginal motifs. Her second exhibition was held in 1953, with work by Stephens and the painter Elizabeth Durack. Another visit to England in 1956 prompted an interest in stoneware. This was a period of considerable development in the mineral industry in Western Australia and of a worldwide craft revival. Both influenced her work and career.

Keys placed much emphasis on capturing the spirit of the land, its ruggedness and antiquity, taking heart from D. H. Lawrence’s maxim that ‘all creative art must rise out of a specific soil, and flicker with a spirit of place’ (McDonald 1936, 334)[SF1] . Her work was included in a national touring exhibition of Australian and New Zealand Pottery (1963–64) and purchased for state and national galleries. In 1966 she gave a solo exhibition at Scotch College—‘Fired Clay Rocks and Ashes’—featuring stonewares with mixed clay inlays and rock and ash glazes. She wrote in the catalogue that she wanted the clay to 'roll, curve, fall, crack and do just what it will' (Bell 1986, 7).

Maxwell retired in 1968 and the Keyses moved to Roleystone, in the Perth hills, where they built a ‘Bush Studio’ with a gas kiln. Eileen formed the Roleystone Group, presented at symposia, and experimented with dyeing and weaving. She was prominent in the early craft movement and was a founding member (1967) of the Craft Association of Australia (Western Australia branch). She travelled in Europe and Japan in 1970 and attended the World Crafts Council general assembly and conference in Toronto in 1974. Her work toured nationally again from 1974 to 1976 in Australian Ceramics. Maxwell died in 1986, the same year the Art Gallery of Western Australia held a retrospective exhibition of Eileen’s work. Forthright, confident, energetic, and always inquiring, she influenced a generation of Western Australian potters to experiment with hand-built forms. Survived by her children, she died in Perth on 16 September 1992 and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Bell, Robert. Eileen Keys: Ceramics, 19501986. Perth, WA: Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1986
  • Campbell, Joan. ‘Eileen Keys: Pioneer Potter.’ Pottery in Australia 8, no. 2. (Spring 1969): 4–6
  • Erickson, Dorothy. Inspired by Light and Land: Designers and Makers in Western Australia 1829-1969. Welshpool, WA: Western Australian Museum, 2014
  • Keys, Eileen. Interview by Barbara Blackman, 6-7 February 1986. Sound recording. National Library of Australia,
  • Letham, Teddy. ‘Eileen Keys: Vale.’ Pottery in Australia 31, no. 4 (1992): 38–39
  • McDonald, Edward D., ed. Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence. London: Heinemann, 1936
  • Newsletter (Perth Potters’ Club). ‘Eileen Keys (Obituary).’ December 1992, 3
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Wright, Mary. ‘Eileen Keys – Working from the Ground Up.’ Fremantle Arts Review 1, no. 8 (August 1986): 10–11

Citation details

Dorothy Erickson, 'Keys, Eileen Constance (1903–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 23 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mitchell, Eileen Constance

24 December, 1903
Christchurch, New Zealand


16 September, 1992 (aged 88)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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