Sir Jacob Epstein
(1880 - 1959)
was an American-born sculptor who worked chiefly in England.
Epstein pioneered modern sculpture and often produced controversial works that
challenged taboos concerning what public artworks appropriately depict.
He was born on November 10, 1880 to were Polish Jewish refugees living in New
York's Lower East Side. He studied art there as a teenager, sketching
the city, and joined The Art Students League of New York in 1900. Then
he worked in a bronze foundry by day, studying drawing and sculptural
modeling at night. Moving to Europe in 1902, he studied in Paris at
the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts, where
Auguste Rodin taught him. He settled in London in 1905, and a few years
later became a British Citizen.
Epstein lived in a long-term relationship with Kathleen
Garman, whom he married sometime after their daughter's birth in 1926.
Their daughter, also named Kathleen, married painter Lucian Freud in
1948 and is mother of two of his daughters.
Epstein was knighted in 1954.
In London, Epstein involved himself with a bohemian
and artistic crowd. Revolting against ornate, pretty art, he made bold,
often harsh and massive forms of bronze or stone. His sculpture is distinguished
by its vigorous rough-hewn realism. Brilliantly avant garde in concept
and style, his works often shocked the general public. He often used
expressively distorted figures, drawing more on non-Western art than
the classical ideal. People in Liverpool are said to have named his
nude male sculpture over the door of the John Lewis department store
"Swinging Dick". Such factors may have focused disproportionate
attention on certain aspects of Epstein's long and productive career,
throughout which he aroused hostility, especially challenging taboos
surrounding the depiction of sexuality. Works condemned in his time
as obscene and disgraceful today communicate thought and understanding.
London was not ready for Epstein's first major commission--18
large nude sculptures made in 1907 for the outside walls of Charles
Holden's building on the Strand (now Zimbabwe House). Considered shocking
by Edwardian standards, they were later hacked and mutilated for "decency".
Bronze portrait sculpture formed one of Epstein's
staple products, and perhaps the best known. These sculptures were often
executed with roughly textured surfaces, expressively manipulating small
surface planes and facial details. Some fine examples are in the National
His larger sculpture was his most expressive and experimental,
but also his most vulnerable. His depiction of Rima, one of author W.
H. Hudson's most famous characters, graces a serene enclosure in Hyde
Park. Even here, a visitor became so outraged as to defile it with paint.
Enthusiastic about his work, Epstein would sculpt
the images of friends, casual acquaintances, and even people dragged
from the street into his studio almost at random. He worked even on
his dying day, August 19, 1959.
His major sculptures include the following in chronological order:
1907-8 over-size figures for a façade, The Strand,
London - mutilated/destroyed
1911 Oscar Wilde Memorial - the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
1913-4 "The Rock Drill" (symbolising 'the terrible Frankenstein's
monster we have made ourselves into')
1917 a marble Venus - Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut
1919 a bronze Christ - Wheathampstead, England
1923 the W. H. Hudson Memorial Rima figure - Hyde Park, London
1928-9 Night and Day - 55 Broadway, St. James', London
1939 an enormous Adam in alabaster - Blackpool, England
1940 "Jacob and the Angel" - the Tate Gallery Collection (originally
1947 Lazarus - New College, Oxford
1950 Madonna and Child - Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, London
1958 "St Michael and the Devil" - Coventry Cathedral
1959 Pan - Hyde Park, London
His portrait sculptures include those of: The Duke of Marlborough, Joseph Conrad, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru.