Skip to main content

Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Sculpt Like an Egyptian: Rock Drill and the Pre-war Art of Jacob Epstein Revisited by Wilfrid Wright

In March 1913, Jacob Epstein (1880–1959) moved his studio from London to a rented cottage in the sleepy village of Pett Level on the Sussex coast. Here, free of the critics and the machinations of what he perceived as an increasingly hostile art world, Epstein was finally able to ‘look out to sea and carve away to [his] heart’s content without troubling a soul’. It was during this three-year period at Pett Level that the American-British sculptor created some of his most pioneering works; among them, Rock Drill (1913). Now widely considered Epstein’s most iconic work, and one of the most significant contributions to British art in the twentieth century, the sculpture has been the focus of numerous exhibitions and publications. However, the interpretation of the Rock Drill has historically been dominated by Epstein’s own remarks on the piece in his 1940 autobiography, Let There Be Sculpture:

Here is the armed, sinister figure of to-day and to-morrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into … a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced.

The prevailing view amongst Epstein scholars is that the sculpture is a latent expression of the artist’s anxieties in an age in which humankind was increasingly usurped by its mechanical creations; that it represents Epstein’s preoccupation with violent, virile masculinity and sex, his obsession with social and artistic progress, and his engagement with the aesthetics of Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism, which placed him at the vanguard of British modernism. Whilst many elements of this interpretation of the Rock Drill certainly ring true, it largely ignores the context in which the work was created and arguably places too much emphasis on the fate of the sculpture, which was partially destroyed by its creator in 1915, and re-exhibited the following year as a mutilated torso, cast in gunmetal.

This talk re-examines Epstein’s Rock Drill, situating it within its contemporary context, both historically and in terms of the artist’s oeuvre. It explores Epstein’s art historical and collecting interests, his engagement with the art and ideas of his contemporaries in the European avant-garde, and his important collaboration with fellow sculptor, Eric Gill. The art of Ancient Egypt was of great interest to Epstein and played an important role in his creative development, yet the literature on Epstein almost entirely ignores the potential influence of Egyptian art and aesthetic theory on the Pett Level works. I argue that Epstein’s well-documented affinity with Ancient Egypt went far deeper than simply inspiring his preferred technique of direct carving, and that the sculpture of the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1292 BCE) and, in particular, the artist’s interest in the historical figure of King Akhenaten, presented Epstein with a mode of representing and eventually personifying the cycle of human life in sculpture (a long-established preoccupation in his oeuvre), allowing him to develop a quasi-cubist ‘temporality’ in his work, whilst actively rejecting the dynamism and abstraction of early Cubism and Futurism, in favour of a more timeless, static aesthetic. Thus, this talk aims to present an alternative reading of the period which is considered the high water mark of Epstein’s time as a member of the European avant-garde.

Wilfrid Wright is an art historian, writer and curator, specialising in Modern and contemporary British art and visual culture. He studied History of Art at the University of Warwick and the Courtauld Institute of Art and regularly contributes to exhibitions and publications, particularly focusing on 20th century British sculpture.


Event information

Sculpt Like an Egyptian: Rock Drill and the Pre-war Art of Jacob Epstein Revisited by Wilfrid Wright

An online Zoom talk, free for PSSA Members. £3.50 for non-members (join the PSSA).

Free tickets and charged tickets book via Eventbrite.

Jacob Epstein, Rock Drill, 1913 (photo: Public Domain).

Back to events