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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Sir Jacob Epstein (1880–1959)

American-born British sculptor. He initially (1893–98) studied drawing and painting at the Art Students’ League, New York, but c.1899, turned to sculpture, attending night classes under George Grey Bernard, and working by day in a bronze foundry. He relocated to Paris and studied, firstly at the École des Beaux Arts and then the Académie Julian (1902–04). In 1905, he settled in London (becoming a naturalised British citizen in 1910). In 1907, he received his first major commission, for 18 life-size figures for the façade of Charles Holden’s British Medical Association building in The Strand (1907–08), his unidealized treatment of the nude sparking the first of a number of public scandals surrounding his work; the protruding parts of the figures were eventually hacked off in 1937, ostensibly to prevent them dropping to the pavement below, on the instructions of the new owners of the building, the high commission for Southern Rhodesia. Epstein began work on his next public commission, the Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1909–12) for Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris, in his studio at 72 Cheyne Walk. He had his first one-man show at the Twenty-One Gallery, London, in 1913 and in 1914 was a founder member of the London Group. Although now in close contact with the Vorticists, Epstein never joined them, and yet his Rock Drill (1913–25, destroyed; bronze cast of Rock Drill torso in Tate) is one of the most intensely powerful embodiments of the group’s aesthetic. His major public commissions of the inter-war years are Rima (Memorial to W.H. Hudson), 1923–25, Hyde Park, and, almost as controversial, his two monumental figure groups, Night and Day, 1928–29, for Holden’s London Underground headquarters, St James’s Park. Despite the notoriety of his large-scale public commissions, Epstein had been simultaneously building a reputation as a portraitist, with sitters ranging from Sibyl Thorndyke (1925) to Ramsay MacDonald (1926, 1934) to Haile Selassie (1936). His increasing income meant that he could rent a cottage in Loughton, Essex, to use as a studio and permanently set up home at 18 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington. Other major works include The Visitation (1926, Tate), Genesis (1931, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester), Lucifer (1945, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), Christ in Majesty (1953, Llandaff Cathedral), Field Marshal Smuts (1956, Parliament Square); St Michael and the Devil (1959, Coventry Cathedral) and Madonna and Child (1950–52, Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, Cavendish Square, London). Epstein received few public honours: he was awarded honorary doctorates by Aberdeen in 1938 and Oxford in 1953, and was knighted in 1954.

Bibliography: R. Buckle, Jacob Epstein Sculptor, London, 1963; T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Kensington and Chelsea with Westminster South-West, Watford, 2023, pp. 35, 189, 191, 278–85, 441–43; T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Liverpool, Liverpool, 1997, pp. 164–68; S. Gardiner, Epstein. Artist Against the Establishment, London, 1992; A.L. Haskell, The Sculptor Speaks. Jacob Epstein to Arnold L. Haskell: a series of conversations about art, London, 1931; F. Lloyd et al, Public Sculpture of Outer South and West London, Liverpool, 2011, pp. 269–70; Mapping Sculpture; G.T. Noszlopy, Public Sculpture of Warwickshire, Coventry & Solihull, Liverpool, 2003, pp. 142–44, 146–47; G.T. Noszlopy and F. Waterhouse, Public Sculpture of Staffordshire and the Black Country, Liverpool, 2005, pp. 71, 222–23, 240; Oxford Art Online – Grove Art Online; E. Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein: with a complete catalogue, London, 1986; E. Silber, ‘Epstein, Sir Jacob (1880–1959)’, ODNB, Oxford, 2004; P. Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of Historic Westminster. Volume 1, Liverpool, 2011, pp. xix, 25–27, 206–10; Who was Who; T. Wyke, Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester, Liverpool, 2004, p. 103.

Terry Cavanagh November 2022

Epstein, Jacob, Sir

Jacob Epstein with a bust of Kathleen, Lady Epstein, c. 1948, probably taken at the Leicester Galleries
(photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London)