Genius whose art was put in a freak show

Sir Jacob Epstein is now regarded as a pioneer of modern sculpture, but during his life his work was ridiculed

By Julia Weiner, August 27, 2009
Epstein’s masterpieces: Torso in Metal from the Rock Drill, 1913–14, bronze (above), and Venus — Second Version, 1917, in marble. Torso in Metal was created when Epstein dismantled his original Rock Drill. The works will be on show at the Royal Academy in London from October 24

Epstein’s masterpieces: Torso in Metal from the Rock Drill, 1913–14, bronze (above), and Venus — Second Version, 1917, in marble. Torso in Metal was created when Epstein dismantled his original Rock Drill. The works will be on show at the Royal Academy in London from October 24

Sir Jacob Epstein, who died 50 years ago this month, is recognised as one of the great sculptors of the 20th century, a true revolutionary who helped change modern art forever. The Royal Academy in London is honouring his achievement with an exhibition in the autumn, while the Ben Uri gallery organised a tour of his public commissions around the capital. During his life, however, Epstein was not always greeted with such admiration. His works were often the objects of virulent criticism and derision — indeed, four of them were bought by the showman Charles Stafford who exhibited them as part of a freak show in Blackpool.

Jacob Epstein was born in New York in 1880 to Jewish-Polish immigrant parents. In 1902, with money he had earned from illustrating Hutchins Hapgood’s book Spirit of the Ghetto, he was able to travel to Paris from where he moved to London in 1905. In 1907 he won his first major public commission when he was chosen to sculpt 18 monumental figures for the then new British Medical Association building in the Strand for a fee of £100 per statue. This first major commission ended disastrously. Several newspapers were outraged by the nudity of his sculptures, conducting a campaign against his designs. The Evening Standard warned that Epstein had erected “a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man, his fiancée, to see.”

There were similar reactions to other commissions he carried out, including the tomb of Oscar Wilde in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and the memorial to wildlife champion W H Hudson in Hyde Park. Each successive scandal damaged his reputation and discouraged potential employers, and he was forced to earn a living by making portrait busts.

Richard Cork, an Epstein expert and the co-curator of the Royal Academy exhibition, has no doubt of the sculptor’s place in the history of art. The exhibition focuses on Epstein, Eric Gill and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, two other young sculptors with whom he worked closely during the years 1905 to 1915. “We’re examining the moment when sculpture in Britain first became modern,” Cork says. “A lot of people tend to think that it was Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth who revolutionised sculpture, but in fact it happened a bit earlier than that with these three young men.” Cork also points out that Epstein was very influential in the career of Moore, whom many would consider Britain’s greatest 20th century sculptor. “He encouraged Moore, bought his work. For a while he was Moore’s mentor.”

Moore himself paid tribute to Epstein after his death, writing: “He took the brickbats, he took the insults, he faced the howls of derision… and as far as sculpture in this century is concerned, he took them first.”

Cork agrees. “Epstein was incredibly brave. He encountered the first opposition very early on with the Strand statues when he was still very young but he went on exciting the most vehement, terrible kind of abuse. If you actually live through that kind of thing it is really rather horrible. The fact that he carried on with what he did is a great tribute to him.”

Cork feels sure that Epstein’s foreign background and his Judaism were contributing factors in the abuse that he received from the press. The work of Gill was also noted for nudity and sexuality but did not arouse the same hostility. “He suffered from antisemitism throughout his life,” Cork notes. “The British are a funny lot, aren’t they? They give you hell and then they give you a knighthood.” Towards the end of his life, Epstein did finally achieve respectability with major commissions from the Festival of Britain and a number of churches and cathedrals. There was a major retrospective at the Tate in 1952 and he was knighted in 1954.

So which pieces does Cork feel are his most important? “The Rock Drill, made in 1913-14, is very much Epstein’s early masterpiece,” he says. Initially made as a celebration of war and the machine age, the artist mutilated the original sculpture to suggest the violence of modern life. “The First World War had such a devastating effect on Epstein that he recoiled against that whole vision of a world of robots, and that is what makes The Rock Drill such a prophetic work and so original,” Cork says. “The other works that I respond to most are the carvings such as the full-length Venus carving we are borrowing from America. It has not been seen in London since 1917 so I think it will be quite a revelation. Later on there were great carvings like Jacob and the Angel.” This latter work was one of the four carvings that were exhibited in Blackpool alongside shrunken heads and embalmed bodies of Siamese twins, drawing crowds of 17,000 a day. It was finally purchased for the Tate in 1996.

At the memorial service for Epstein, held in St Paul’s Cathedral, his friend Canon Mortlock asked: “How was it that a boy born and bred in the Jewish faith and never embracing any other should become the interpreter of the sublime mysteries” of Christianity? Epstein himself had already answered this question as early as 1916 when he wrote: “Here I am, a Jew with a burning desire to do something worth perpetuating for my faith, but there is no outlet for my talent. The synagogue has no use for me; it affords me no opportunity in exercising the imagination for the loftiest of all human emotions, the religious aesthetic.”

However, works such as Jacob and the Angel have strong Jewish themes. Israeli art historian Dr Raquel Gilboa, who has just written a book on the sculptor, feels that, although he made a number of works for Christian buildings, Epstein’s Jewish background was important.

“His approach to almost every subject was untraditional. His sculptures, to my mind, were grounded in what I term ‘cultural Judaism’, a humanistic vision that, although derived from biblical sources, was realised in a secular context.”

A more personal view of Epstein is revealed by his granddaughter Leda Sloat. “I called him ‘Eppydaddy’ as a child and still do. Sometimes he would do drawings of me, but I took it for granted and didn’t realise how much I would wish I still had them. To me he was just a wonderful grandfather who loved children.”

Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill opens at the Royal Academy on October 24. And There Was Sculpture by Raquel Gilboa is published by Paul Holberton at £20

Last updated: 10:22am, September 4 2009