Jacob Epstein

An Atlantic Portrait



IT is one of the paradoxes of the English — a race whom the rest of the world despairs of understanding — that, while they strenuously oppose nonconformity, their country has long been hospitable to the nonconformist. The eccentric, the crank, the rebel, the anarchist, the nihilist, and the half-mad have always flourished in England, and lived happily according to their lights whether they were foreigners or Englishmen. Karl Marx, a rebel German, found refuge in London and the British Museum a comfortable place in which to compose some of the chapters of Das Kapital while supporting himself in part as London correspondent for the New York Tribune. Wilfrid Blunt, an Englishman in the great tradition of gentleman, traveler, and poet, could go off to the Arabia which he loved, incite I he Arabians to join the Egyptians in rebellion against Britain, and return to his English acres to breed Arabian stallions and write poetry in peace and with honor. Ramsay MacDonald, a Laborite Scotsman, could narrowly escape jail during the World War because of his pacifist objections to Britain’s participation in it, and in a few years after the war find himself Prime Minister of England. George Bernard Shaw has spent a long life deriding and laughing at so-called English virtues only to find his fame and popularity ever growing, while his late great friend, T. E. Lawrence, contemptuously refusing the decorations of his king and pouring out his acid scorn upon what he took to be Britain’s diplomacy of betrayal of the Arabs, lived and died one of his country’s revered heroes.

England not only has sheltered and frequently honored the rebel artist, but, what is equally important, has as often as any other country supported him by buying the products of his skill. Thus, no artist of modern times has outraged British smugness, British greengrocer morality, and British country-vicar standards of beauty as much as the American-born Jew and sculptor, Jacob Epstein. He has spent nearly all his adult life in London, covering a period of more than thirty years, and there risen from poverty to affluence, from obscurity to fame. And, while his sculptures have been acquired by collectors and museums throughout the world, it is the English who have bought the majority of them, who have sat for most of his commissioned portraits, and whose best minds have defended him when he has been attacked.

Epstein and his works have been denounced in press, pulpit, and Parliament; he has been accused of being an enemy of religion, beauty, truth, and the purity of British womanhood; he has seen his sculptures defaced time after time. Even the fact that he has so frequently been the storm centre of controversy has caused him to be denounced, on the ground that he sits up nights thinking of ways to outrage English sensibilities and thereby garner columns of publicity.

His reply to all this is calm and simple. If he is asked why he does not leave London for the allegedly more hospitable shores of America, where he was born, he says: ‘Yes, the English scourge me, but they buy my works and let me live. Would New York do as much?’ One wonders: would it? And to the charge that he is a publicity-seeking fomenter of quarrels he answers: ‘I make sculpture, not controversy.’ When some journalists called his huge ‘Genesis’ a ‘ joke in marble,’ Epstein pointed out that carving imposes an absolute, irremediable finality about every movement. You cannot rub out and begin again. This fight with the medium imposes a severe strain, and a sudden flaw or weakness may upset a year’s work. What serious artist, he asked, can afford to give over a year of intense concentration to amuse a few gossip writers or shock the public? But sculpture, as it emerges from the hands of Epstein, and controversy seem to be almost inseparable, and have been from his earliest commission in 1907 to his latest figures in 1939.

In 1907, when Epstein was a young man of twenty-seven, he got a commission through the offices of Muirhead Bone, the well-known etcher, for eighteen heroic figures to decorate the outside of the British Medical Association Building which was then being erected. This not only was a magnificent opportunity for the young sculptor to show his mettle, but was doubly welcome because he believes the Greeks were right in holding that architecture and sculpture should move wedded to one solemn music. The frieze of figures, forty feet from the ground on the third story of the building, was hardly noticeable to the man walking under them in the street, but unfortunately it faced the National Vigilance Society, whose offices were in the building immediately opposite. These professional snoopers could now enjoy the voluptuous pleasure of sticking their heads into evil merely by sticking them out of the window. Carved of Portland stone and unveiled in 1908, the figures were all nudes carrying out the assigned theme of ‘The Birth of Energy.’ Among them were ‘Primal Man,’ a nude blowing the breath of life into an atom; ‘Manliness,’ whose male attributes were not understated; and ‘Maternity,’ a fat, negroid woman, slightly swollen with child. Soon the storm began blowing which, with short intervals of calm, has been blowing ever since in Epstein’s career.

The controversy was begun by the National Vigilance Society, whose window leanings were now rewarded by columns of newspaper publicity. Then the police—so often and so strangely the last court of artistic resort in the AngloSaxon world — were called in and shamefacedly mounted scaffoldings to make notes, while the crowd below gaped and joked. Hard on the heels of the police came the clergy in the person of Father Bernard Vaughan, who, outraged by ‘Maternity,’ wrote: ‘The sacred subject of maternity has been treated a thousand times with idealistic beauty, but this mother suggests merely brutal commonplace.’ Later the same man was to make one of the most astonishing criticisms in the long record of the often errant criticism that has been flung at Epstein. The sculptor, he said, lived in a section of London (Bloomsbury) largely given over to the manufacture of contraceptives!

Epstein plunged into the battle, and, since he has a gift of corrosive speech and stinging epigram which he freely uses when aroused, it was not likely that his participation in the quarrel would reduce it to the friendly level of a carnival pelting with roses. ‘The capital of the British Empire,’ he said, ‘is so used to statues in frock coats and trousers that these figures have struck them with the brutal truth.’ But he was not then, or ever afterward, to fight alone. A memorandum was soon addressed to the British Medical Association signed by distinguished teachers of the arts, artists, and directors of galleries ridiculing the opposition to Epstein’s work; and when the august London Times defended the figures on the highest æsthetic grounds the controversy came to an end. For the succeeding twenty-seven years the statues remained high above the Strand, gathering soot and pigeons’ droppings, unnoticed by the man in the street and almost forgotten by everybody, until in 1935 the new owner of the Medical Building — the South Rhodesian Government — revived the ancient quarrel, succeeded in defacing the figures which could not be removed, and removed the rest. They were still, it seems, immoral, and South Rhodesia had come ten thousand miles to save London from the burning.


The quarrels of Epstein with his critics who would censor his work or police it with London bobbies not only are a part of the man, but, viewed in retrospect, make us long already for those halcyon days now fast coming to an end everywhere in the world, when, if a man was assailed for saying what he thought, he could defend his right to say it; and when art lay, not within the province of government and bureaucrats, but within the wider province of the artist and lovers of art. Epstein may, therefore, in the years that lie immediately ahead, be remembered not only as a great and vital artist but as a passionate defender of the freeborn man’s right to say what he thinks and portray the world in stone or bronze as it is reflected upon the retina of his spirit.

He has not, for example, felt himself bound as an artist by the religious or sentimental conventions that have held in grip centuries of artists who have portrayed Christ on canvas or stone. He is indeed strongly in rebellion against the conventional Christ of the ages on the ground that he is so frequently portrayed as an almost effeminate, pretty young man. In Epstein’s opinion this does Christ an immense injustice. He must have been, argues the sculptor, a man of great strength as well as gentleness; possessed of passionate convictions as well as the power to forgive; capable of profound indignation as well as infinite mercy. Epstein, moreover, in common with many sensitive Jews, is conscious of close communion with that quintessentially Jewish Jew who as Christ Jesus conquered half the world in the name of love. And, he concludes, since no contemporary has left the world a sketch or a drawing of Christ’s features, why is not every man free to see him in the light of his own vision?

In this spirit he has created three Christs within less than twenty years, and it is perhaps symbolic of his subject, in whose gentle name men have been tortured to death, that these reverent if unconventional representations aroused bitter, noisy controversies. The first Christ, completed in 1920, is a giantsized figure in bronze eleven feet high. Christ is standing, his feet naked, his body wrapped in cerements, one hand pointing to the gaping wound of the nail in the other. The forehead is high and serene; the nose proud; the mouth tortured; the eyes sorrowful. But the figure aroused shrill tempests of protest until it was purchased by a collector and removed from public view.

In 1935 came the second statue of Christ — a bas-relief entitled ‘Ecce Homo.’ It is a colossal carving in stone, with a huge head bearing a crown of thorns, thick sad lips, sightless almond eyes, and two great hands tied with a rope. This time the controversy extended to Parliament when Sir Cooper Rawson in Commons asked the Home Secretary to take ‘due steps to guard against any breach of the peace which might be provoked by this spectacle.’ G. K. Chesterton called it ‘one of the greatest insults to religion I have ever seen’; while the British Navy and the Salvation Army, to their astonishment perhaps, found themselves fighting side by side. Vice-Admiral Taylor in Commons, fearful of riots, asked that the police be authorized to remove or confiscate the figure. Colonel Hamilton of the Salvation Army contented himself with calling it grotesque and a sacrilege.

But the Dean of St. Paul’s, Dr. Walter Matthews, defended the figure. ‘It gives the impression of great strength,’ he said, ‘very different from the weak sentimental representations of Christ with which we have been made familiar.’

The storm finally subsided only to blow again at greater velocity when two years later, in 1937, Epstein exhibited his third Christ — ‘ Consummation Est.’ He said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

This figure was — to the conventional — the most shocking and repulsive of the three Christs. In this two-and-ahalf-ton statue carved from pink Derbyshire alabaster, Christ is recumbent. The helplessness of approaching death is upon him; his eyes are closed; his mouth turns downward at the corners. But he is not quite dead. His head and arms are slightly uplifted, and the huge palms are upturned to show the nail wound as a final gesture to the world, and thus to bear out the title of the work.

Again the letter columns of the newspapers were filled with communications from ‘Disgusted Reader’ or ‘Epstein Admirer’; for once the brilliant tongue of Lady Oxford could only murmur after she had inspected the Christ, ‘I can say nothing — nothing’; while the Reverend Leslie D. Weatherhead, Minister of the City Temple, wrote a long newspaper article entitled, ‘ Give Credit to the Alabaster Christ.’ It remained, however, for Mr. Alfred Bossom, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, to place his hand upon precisely the point that makes Epstein’s work so often the subject of controversy: ‘It makes you think. What I mean is, his work can’t be ignored. You can’t pass Epstein’s sculpture without noticing it. It may annoy you, or charm you, or shock you, but it produces a definite reaction, and I like that — art with a bite in it.’


What manner of man is this sculptor whose works cause members of Parliament to call for the police, some of the clergy almost to ask for his blood, and at the same time array with him in his struggles scores of the ablest minds of England?

Born of poor parents on the East Side of New York in 1880, Epstein was enabled to study in Paris in his early twenties through the patronage of a wealthy friend, and shortly thereafter removed to London, where he has since lived and become a British subject. He has returned to America only one time since leaving it. In 1927 he was finally prevailed upon to give a show in New York, which was attended by large crowds of art students, critics, buyers, and the lay public. Here Epstein insisted that the prices of his works be listed in the catalogue, contrary to the mawkish practice of art galleries in which the ridiculous pretense is made that somehow money and art must not be mentioned together lest the art be tainted, prices being therefore omitted from the catalogues. Epstein, who detests artiness, said simply that while he is working on a figure he regards it as art; when he has finished it, it becomes merchandise because it is offered for sale. Consequently prospective buyers at Epstein’s show could shop for bronze figures as simply as they could shop for shoes at Macy’s.

While in New York, Epstein, who had so often been defended by other artists, found himself in the novel position of defending not merely another artist but the modern conception of art itself. The New York Custom House was attempting to assess duties upon Brancusi’s ‘Bird in Flight’ on the ground that it was not an original work of art, and therefore duty-free, but a piece of polished metal subject to the duties applicable to metal. The Custom House boys said it certainly was not a bird. If so, where were its beak, its legs, its feathers, and other properties common to birds? Do you call a thing a bird that is nothing but a polished metal cylinder? Epstein admitted that Brancusi’s figure was not precisely a photographic representation of the sparrows that hopped about the Custom House steps, but it was the artist’s conception of bird flight worked out soaringly and convincingly in bronze. Finally Brancusi’s battle was won, but the next foreign sculptor who ships a figure through New York and calls it a bird will have to stick a few feathers on it or go to trial. The Custom House still thinks it knows a bird when it. sees one.

During his New York stay Epstein lived quietly in a flat facing Central Park West with his wife and daughter PeggyJean, both of whom, in the old tradition, have frequently been his models. He lived quietly, seeing only his friends, relatives, and art students, and disdaining to accept or even to answer scores of invitations from the rich hostesses who infest New York, and who, in the words of D. H. Lawrence, ‘blow thin draughts of words down your neck’ at dinner. Epstein preferred hot cakes and coffee and the company of friends at Child’s — then still in its antiseptic manner—to the rayon chi-chi of Park Avenue drawing-rooms. And perhaps it is just as well for the hostesses that the famous sculptor did not grace their boards, because he shares to some extent the legendary absent-mindedness of the artist and would have been blissfully unaware of either their names or their fame. One day a large and very excited woman burst into the living room of Epstein’s flat, threw herself into his arms, kissed him violently, and babbled with delight. At her entrance Epstein’s visitor of the moment arose and waited to be introduced, but he dazedly led the intruder into the next room and soon returned looking pale and shocked. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t introduce the lady,’ he said by way of apology. ‘I’ve just found out she is my Aunt Sophie whom I haven’t seen in twenty years.’

Although Epstein’s New York show was a success critically and financially, and he was offered many commissions for portraits, he did only one — a bust of John Dewey which is now at Columbia University. The pull of London was so strong upon him that he soon abruptly departed.

In London, Epstein’s home and studio are combined in a small house in Hyde Park Gate. Here he houses his magnificent collection of African wood and bronze sculpture which he began to gather long before its significance was discovered by the world in general, and long before its influence upon modern art became so potent. Here, too, hang superb canvases by his friend Matthew Smith, a quiet, pedagogical-looking little man, whose genius Epstein realized years in advance of the critics and the galleries, and whose drum he beat until the artist came into his own as one of the greatest painters of Europe. Here, at his tea table, he quietly talks with friends and acquaintances from all over the world. Around his board one may find seated such disparate personalities as a New Zealand aviator, a beautiful Slavic model, an American lawyer, a Bombay merchant, a member of the English nobility, and a Dutch art student. On such occasions — and they occur nearly every day — Mrs. Epstein, a Scotswoman, pours tea, while the daughter, Peggy-Jean, if she is at home, passes around toast and cakes. Epstein, who is a superb talker and widely informed, does not monopolize the conversation, and is often, indeed, almost inconspicuous, if a man can be inconspicuous whose very appearance commands attention. Completely neglectful of his clothes, Epstein often appears in a timeless, nondescript coat; unhappylooking trousers which have obviously been forced into a perilous misalliance with his coat; a piaid cotton shirt gaping slightly at the throat; and a loosely knotted tie which doesn’t quite seem to know its place in the general scheme. But as one of his favorite poets — Walt Whitman — has it, ‘a man’s personality strikes through his flannels,’ and the sculptor’s personality dominates the room. He is a big and powerful man radiating enormous vigor and the impression of almost inexhaustible physical energy. His torso is huge, his neck strong; his gray eyes are sad, his sensitive, tortured lips never quite still. He suggests at once Michelangelo and William Blake.

If storms of controversy gather about the head of this quiet man quietly talking at his tea table, it is not only for the reason already suggested. It is also because he has the great artist’s scorn of compromise; because he has something to say and says it with smashing power; and because he cares nothing for the opinions of those who commission portraits, academicians, or the multitude. Once when he was executing his monumental figures in stone — ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ —for the London Underground building, he was asked what the man in the street would say of them. ‘The man in the street is a fool,’ he replied, ‘and I don’t care a whit for his opinions. I should be a fool too if I were in the least influenced by him.’

This fierce integrity is applied by Epstein not only to that shadowy entity called the man in the street whom anybody but a politician may safely defy. He applies it with equal integrity to the great and the powerful, and — certain evidence of its deep roots — even when its application might mean hardship for his family and himself. Once, when Epstein was a poor sculptor, one of the great English dukes offered him a commission to do a full-length figure of the duke clad in the robes he had worn at the coronation of George V. The notion offended the sculptor’s artistic instincts. The man was a cold, arrogant, narrowly aristocratic snob. His mean personality should not be cloaked in robes of state, nor a majesty given to him in bronze that he did not possess in the flesh. Epstein refused the commission unless it should be done on his own terms — no robes. The duke accepted, and a thousand years hence men will see him as the sculptor saw him, with his cold, proud, arrogant face framed by the merest suggestion of a wing collar.

But when Joseph Conrad, conscious of approaching death, asked Epstein to do a bust of him, he gladly packed the necessary materials and stayed with Conrad in his Kentish cottage until the clay model had been made. Soon afterward Conrad died, but not before he had written to a friend saying he was content to pass on to earthly immortality in the form that Epstein had given him.

On still another occasion one of London’s rich and high-born young men, cadaverous and degenerate, offered Epstein a commission to do a full-length nude of him. The sculptor flatly refused. The young man then begged him to do a nude bust, letting him hold one of his pet serpents in his hands. Epstein shook his head. A string of pearls, then. No again. Finally the bust was done on Epstein’s own terms, and when it was finished the owner gave a reception for all smart. London in his cloth-of-gold and cloth-ofsilver drawing-room to see it. There it stood in the centre of the room — a terrifying study in degeneration. But the young man liked it. He, too, is a man of artistic integrity.


Epstein is one of the most prolific of artists, working both in bronze and in stone, creating monumental as well as small pieces, scorning to employ a helper even when he is chipping away at a giant block of marble, and, when a less vigorous man would rest, suddenly turning out hundreds of drawings which are snapped up by eager buyers as soon as they appear on dealers’ walls. These drawings from the hand of one of the most famous figures in the world of art Epstein usually sells for about $125 — a fraction of the fee charged by many of our banal illustrators for drawings to accompany a boy-meets-girl story in a slick-paper magazine.

But even when Epstein does flower drawings he manages to outrage some section of the English public. A gardenand flower-loving people, some Englishmen are incensed simply because Epstein draws flowers at all; others because even the simple field daisy under his hand glows with a strange light, and delphiniums become mauve-blue cathedral spires. His flower drawings are indeed shot through with some of the almost demonic vitality that appears in his bronze portraits, so that his sunflowers burn like a tropical noon and his massed poppies seem warm to the touch. Last year he exhibited a group of pencil drawings derived from the text of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. Epstein said: ‘This bible of the modern man has long called to me, and, brooding upon the powerful subtle images evoked by long reading, a world comes forth, filled with splendid maleficent entities.’ Hitherto Les Fleurs du Mal had been profaned by many illustrators who used it as a point of departure for pornography. Epstein’s drawings reflected the hopeless despair, sensuous music, and necrophilic horror of the poems. One critic, by way of damning the drawings, said they lacked ‘Latin discipline,’ and he was right. But once before a great English artist had exemplified by his life as well as his works his own dictum that ‘the gateway of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.’ Through this gateway William Blake walked to immortality, and Epstein’s questing feet are not strangers to it.

The range of Epstein’s sculptures, his moods, and his manner is as endless as his energy is inexhaustible. At one extreme is his tiny, tender, Donatello-like ‘Head of an Infant’; at the other a forty-ton block of carved stone that stands as memorial to Oscar Wilde in the Père Lachaise cemetery of Paris. His list of portrait sitters includes many of the great and famous of the world; it is as various as the men and women who pass before a renowned physician. In his gallery one finds the Duchess of Marlborough; the little man called Moyshe Oyved who runs a famous antique shop near the British Museum; the late Ramsay MacDonald, Prime Minister of England; Haile Selassie, lately king of Ethiopia; Lady Gregory of the Dublin Abbey Theatre; Paul Robeson, the distinguished American Negro singer; Robert Cunninghame Graham, at once Scotch laird, South American Caballero, traveler, writer, and all compact of flame and light; and Admiral Fisher of the British Navy, of the bulldog chin, Chinese eyes, and Old Testament wrath, who predicted in 1912 that the World War would begin in the summer of 1914 and who had the navy ready for the trial.

In Hyde Park, not far from Epstein’s home, stands his famous Rima — a memorial to W. H. Hudson. ‘It is a wild symbol of nature, an emanation from all of Hudson’s fierce, intense, and lonely writings,’ wrote James Bone. Yet this simple panel aroused a fury against Epstein which has never quite subsided since it was erected in 1925.

Commissioned by the London County Council, Epstein was told to make a figure of Rima, and, turning to Green Mansions, chose this passage on Rima’s death: ‘What a distance to fall, through burning leaves and smoke, like a white bird shot dead villi a poisoned arrow, swift, and straight into the sea of flames below.’ When the panel had been finished, crowds flocked to Hyde Park to see Premier Stanley Baldwin unveil it, and if the Premier was shocked, so too was Epstein by the expression on Mr. Baldwin’s face when the curtains fell. Here the spectators saw on the centre panel of a bird fountain the figure of Rima, falling through space, her thighs lopped off, her arms thrown out, her long hair floating, her breasts opulent, her flung-out hands oversize. Crowds gathered before the panel in the park muttering and threatening; petitions were circulated for its removal; and when a caricature of the panel appeared at the Aldwych, two of Epstein’s spirited models, Dolores and Anita, hurled eggs and tomatoes at it. A few days after the unveiling Rima was daubed with paint; in 1929 she was tarred and feathered; in 1935, the technique of the vandals improving, permanganate of potash was applied to the figure; and in 1937, in keeping with the times, she was disfigured with a swastika sign and the word ‘join’ written in tar. But Rima still stands in Hyde Park, and Epstein, still working in his near-by studio, continues to produce sculpture out of his own intense vision and according to his own concepts of beauty.

Epstein himself does not consciously aim at beauty; to do so, in his opinion, is to destroy character and to become what Modigliani called a faiseur de beaute. For him there are no absolute standards of beauty, as there were not for Rembrandt, who saw beauty in the carcass of a cow hanging in a butcher’s shop, or for Velasquez, who saw in his Dwarf sorrow, dignity, and beauty. It is perhaps Epstein’s ability to see beauty where other men see only ugliness, and to render his vision into stone or bronze movingly, powerfully, and unforgettably, that causes so many men to hate him and his works. But at bottom this is a hatred at work everywhere, in the field of politics as well as in the arts. For it is true both in the arts and in politics that men tend to deplore and resent change; that revaluations in either field are highly distasteful to the æsthetically or the politically lazy; and the measure of their distaste and of change is the measure of the extent to which they are moved to rebel. Judged by this criterion, Epstein is a brilliantly successful artist, but it is not by this criterion that he would be judged. It is not his purpose to arouse, to shock, or, for that matter, to please.

A simple and an austere man, he will never make any concession to passing fancies, the crowds, or the critics. A lover of life and the pulsing energy of life, he will go on hating dryness, sterility, and death; exorcising sloppy sentimentality; scorning compromise. Now approaching sixty, with unimpaired mental and intellectual vigor, ho will go on communicating his ideas and emotions to the world in stone and bronze, — ideas and emotions so simple that they underscore all human life, — while in all probability, every year in the future as in the past, retired Indian Army colonels will deplore his sculpture in the London Times, rich dowagers will shake their exquisitely coiffured heads, and posterity, if not his own generation, will continue to be enriched by the work of Epstein’s hands.