Can I have my shilling back?

Peter Campbell

  • Epstein: Artist against the Establishment by Stephen Gardiner
    Joseph, 532 pp, £20.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 7181 2944 X

Jacob Epstein made, roughly speaking, three kinds of sculpture. There were busts and portrait heads in bronze, which pretty well everybody liked. I remember returning again and again to the photographs of them in his autobiography, particularly to the long-necked high-cheekboned girls who seemed as romantic as Picasso’s sad blue and pink people, but more substantial. Then there were the monumental bronzes: the Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square and the St Michael at Coventry, for example. These were well-liked by most people and liked very much indeed by many. Because they are whole figures, not just heads, you can see how Epstein handled poses: they tend to be solemn, formal and frontal, the palms of the hands often turned towards you. These pieces made me uneasy: were they serious, or were they just making serious gestures? They seemed uncomfortably close to allegorical figures on public monuments and war memorials which use solemn language with rhetorical mendacity. And finally there were the carvings, some very large, some modest in size, mostly smoother, more stylised, and more in the tradition of early 20th-century Modern than the cast sculptures (with the startling exception of Rock-Drill). Among these carvings are the doves, of around 1915, which were Epstein’s shot at Brancusi’s kind of abstraction and simplification, and a whole string of allegorical figures. Some owe more than others to his study of non-European sculpture, many, like Adam and Genesis, are figures composed of tight intersecting curves. This gives them a great deal of surface energy. Too much to my eye: Adam seems to be pumping iron and the pregnant figure of Genesis to be painfully swollen. Although some people liked as much these carved figures, from the BMA sculptures of 1908 to the TUC memorial of 1958 as much as the bronzes, they were almost pathologically, and very publicly loathed by others

Epstein’s reputation did not rise and fall with Modernism: in many ways he regressed rather than progressed with the century. The Rock-Drill of around 1915 is a landmark in English Modernism, but the Vorticist/Futurist road it points down was not one he wished to follow. The Wilde memorial, which he completed in 1912, has many of the decorative elements which would find their way into Art Deco. It was presumably its comparative-formality which helped it to get a good press in England despite the row a few years earlier over the BMA sculptures. (This was the old BMA building – now Zimbabwe House – in the Strand.) Conceptually and iconographically, his later big bronzes have much more in common with Gilbert or even Frampton (arch anti-Epsteinian and a major figure in Gardiner’s demonology) than with the Modernism of Henry Moore

Epstein’s work was made for public places and the liking and loathing it attracted found their way into print. ‘Great New Statue in Cavendish Square’ is not a headline to match ‘Rima Tarred and Feathered’, and so Epstein, despite his considerable commercial and critical success, was often very publicly under attack. Much of Stephen Gardiner’s biography is taken up with what critics and journalists said about Epstein’s work, but he doesn’t really ask what was in it that so irritated some and gave such pleasure to others. Gardiner is too often rhetorically ‘puzzled’ by reactions which would have been worth analysing – his explanation of almost any rejection of Epstein is a gloss on his subtitle. What useful definition of the Establishment allows it to be opposed to someone who receives a knighthood, decorates cathedrals and public buildings, commemorates leaders, the military and the aristocracy?

What Epstein was up against (and, reasonably enough, felt personally attacked by) were people who did not like his work. Shaw (who disliked the bust Epstein made of him, although he had defended the Christ) and Henry Moore (who, as a young man, had been generously treated by Epstein, but stood in the way of a London site being found for Ecce Homo) were both less than wholeheartedly pro-Epstein. So were fuming academic sculptors and the authors of tabloid gloats and broadsheet sneers. These do not add up to an Establishment. The truth is more interesting: both representatives of the new Modernism (who found him too eloquent, embarrassingly emotional and formally unsubtle) and advocates of academic sculpture were unwilling to take his work at anything like his own valuation. His successes came by appealing over their heads. Literary people like T.E. Lawrence and, later, his brother; Shaw (despite the differences over his portrait); and Cyril Connolly were more likely than sculptors or painters to be Epstein’s advocates. His commercial success depended on a few patrons, above all John Quinn, who bought much of his early carving, and on the demand for portraiture from a group very much more nearly coterminous with the political establishment than his detractors were.

Epstein found the attitudes of critics understandable: they were a dishonest, self-serving lot. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘the almost insane hatred of the average man and woman that is baffling.’ What is it about Epstein and England that explains the rows and tetchy relationships, the ‘insane hatred’ – and, more pertinently the embarrassment his work produced?

He was, of course, Jewish (and foreign). Gardiner quotes abuse from Fascist papers, and innuendo (doubtless more effectively poisonous) from conservative ones, which make an irrefutable case for an anti-semitic element in the reaction to his work. And his private life left chinks for the arrows of the prurient. But so, for example, did Augustus John’s. It is not plausible that chauvinism and moral outrage were responsible for everything. There was something about the sculpture itself which a lot of people did not like, and, as it seems probable that what they disliked bore some relation to what those who did like his work responded to, it is to the sculpture that one must eventually turn.

Epstein was born in New York in 1880. Something of a prodigy, a natural draughtsman whose talents did not go unrecognised, he was supported by an American patron after breaking with his family, who weren’t interested in his becoming an artist. He arrived in England in 1905 from Paris, where he had studied carving and modelling and met Degas and Rodin. He had also been singled out by the woman who was to become his first wife: Margaret Dunlop, a Scot, ten years his senior and married. She divorced and became Mrs Epstein in 1906, which she remained until she died 41 years later, having acted as mother to some of his children, managed his financial affairs, acquiesced in his love affairs and suffered horribly from jealousy. An account from the early Twenties describes her as ‘a large, short woman and, with a veil over her head, looking very like a Russian doll – as broad as she was high and ready to roll back into place if knocked over. She had large coarse features and limbs and crimson-dyed hair, and she had a very strong Scottish accent.’ Her distresses make more poignant reading than Epstein’s critical reverses. At one point she invited his mistress Kathleen round to talk things over. When they were alone ‘she said, “I am going to kill you” ... produced a gun from inside her ankle-length skirt, went on talking and then fired.’ No charges were brought. When Epstein visited Kathleen, who was quite seriously wounded, in hospital, he said he had to protect his wife. Both women stuck with him and shared the great man’s time, an arrangement celebrated publicly in a cab ride Margaret suggested she and Kathleen take round Hyde Park. Commenting on Epstein’s decision to make sure that his wife was not prosecuted, Gardiner writes: ‘That was a tough decision, but it was typical of him to take it, and the only one possible if another highly damaging scandal involving his family was to be avoided; and there was his work, a scandal would have distracted him, and that was impermissible.’ Gardiner seems to take Epstein as seriously as he took himself.

When Margaret died in her mid-seventies and Epstein unlocked the room next to their bedroom he found, amid a tremendous smell of mothballs, trunks and sacks loaded with the rewards of years of shopping and jumbling. He was distressed and horrified and had the room cleared out by a rag-and-bone man. Here more than anywhere else, Gardiner makes a real emotional connection between the man and the muddles of his life.

There is a striking contrast between this scene and the picture of Epstein’s working life given by his portraits of the string of exotic young women who acted as his models, and in many cases lived in the house, welcomed by his wife in an attempt, Gardiner suggests, to provide counter attractions to Kathleen. This was, Gardiner points out, the very end of the era of the professional artist’s model, and the women’s relationships with their employers tend to evoke the bull-and-heifer version of the artistic life which still occasionally turns up in cartoons and on dirty postcards. Who was exploiting whom, and how, is a complicated business. Mrs Epstein was certainly not a clear winner. Epstein himself, buoyed up by his work, its demands and its rewards, seems to have had a fair share of the egotism which goes with a sense of one’s own genius. He also seems to have been right to assume that whatever problems following his daemon might bring, someone else would clear them up.

Epstein’s personality fitted him for the role of romantic artist. His looks did too. The face of the young prodigy from New York looking, a little truculently one might think, from under the brim of a black hat – presumably one of those he was in the habit of buying from a clerical outfitter in Paris – seems to exude the confidence of great talent recognised young. He looks determined, self-assured and energetic. The confidence allowed him to cut the academic connection rather early and look for sources in African and other non-European sculpture. It also seems to have blinded him to his inadequacies, or rather to have persuaded him that he could take on the tasks of representation without learning the skills on which it depended. Some pieces look as if he was trying for effects which were beyond him. For instance, he never learned how to imply movement without leaving the pose unresolved. As a result, his large figures in bronze either avoid the problem by standing hieratically, firm on both feet, or topple forward (like the figure of Smuts) instead of seeming to stride ahead. This is not a question of academic versus non-academic sculpture. Matisse’s figures are not unresolved in this way, nor are Degas’s, or Moore’s come to that, or even David Smith’s. It can be argued that this lack of poise is a positive thing, part of Epstein’s style, but it seems probable that, at best, it will in the end be judged a provincialism, akin to Hogarth’s ramshackle perspective.

Although Gardiner insists that Epstein was highly self-critical, his output was variable. Many of the portrait busts are very fine, others are botched. When he turned his hand to painting and drawing he produced large numbers of works which offer abundant evidence of his pleasure in his own fecundity, but in which the briskness of his attack cannot make up for a perfunctoriness of observation.

The most attractive of the relationships Gardiner describes is Epstein’s friendship with Matthew Smith. There is no suggestion of bad faith here. Smith was never suspected of doing him down behind his back as Moore and John were. Epstein owned thirty of Smith’s paintings at one point, and only debts made him sell them. That he so admired Smith’s angst-free canvases may say something about the feeling Epstein wished his own paintings to project. Smith achieved the kind of pleasure in colour and pigment which Epstein seems to be after. But Smith was a much better painter, and did not share Epstein’s attachment to the themes and rhetoric of high art.

Epstein had an almost Victorian view of art and his place in it: ‘A sculptor,’ he wrote, late in life, ‘must feel called to his work as a vocation or dedication. He must feel himself borne along on a strong current towards his goal and I have felt this very strongly since my early days ... Only high seriousness will avail.’ The notion of high seriousness corresponded to traditional notions of status in the tasks he undertook: the embellishment of buildings (the BMA), commemorative monuments (Rima in Hyde Park) and funerary monuments (the Wilde tomb) – to the English mind these were well suited to sculpture in the grand manner. Epstein, however, chose just these commissions to assert his individuality. This is not to say that he shocked on purpose, but that his view of what was appropriate, a view which fitted very well with those of patrons who wished to bring fresh air into the stultified world of English official art, was perfectly calculated to annoy. His titles – Adam, Ecce Homo, Maternity, Genesis – would sit well enough on a Rodin, or even a Leighton. One must have some sympathy with Lieutenant Commander Bristow who asked the Leicester Galleries for his shilling back. What was advertised as Venus bore, he claimed, no resemblance to the subject. Epstein’s titles and his attitude to sculpture asserted continuities that he could not sustain.

The conflicts which a period of stylistic transition threw up were at the heart of the fuss over the BMA sculptures. Holden’s design for the building had its origins in Michelangelo’s Mannerist architecture. Narrow, arbitrarily broken mouldings, squeezed spaces for statuary and so on. He was, however, sympathetic to sculpture which had abandoned the skilled, mildly perverse etiolations of, say, Alfred Gilbert. In the context of the BMA building Epstein’s figures, which suited Holden’s taste better than they suited his style, were like shoppers who had strayed onto the catwalk of a fashion show. The first complaints were of indecency, but the discord of styles was, in a way, more shocking. The broader surfaces and forms of Holden’s London Transport building make a much happier background for Epstein’s sculptures. They still drew abuse as well as praise, but here the architect and sculptor are more or less in step.

One of Epstein’s busts is of Isabel Nicholas, a young painter who became one of his models, and who bore him a son (Mrs Epstein, then in her sixties, strapped a pillow under her skirt to appear pregnant and ‘protect Epstein from the scandal of another illegitimate child’). Gardiner, affected perhaps by its pin-up pose, speaks of the model as ‘young and juicy’ and of her ‘jutting superb breasts’. This is not language one would happily use of Matthew Smith, or of sculpture by Matisse or Maillol or Rodin or even Picasso. In Epstein’s case it is almost excusable: it points up the vulgarity, the lack of good taste, which made Epstein a success and a scandal. The blandness of Eric Gill’s sculpture, which Gardiner contrasts with Epstein’s vigour, is an example of the kind of English tastefulness to which Epstein offered an alternative. The Epstein-England match had its tragi-comic moments, culminating in Louis Tussaud’s waxworks in Blackpool buying some of his most controversial sculptures. They eventually acquired four of them, including Genesis and Consummatumest. An early report describes them as being exhibited among shrunken human heads and other curiosities. Epstein, who emerged well from verbal exchanges in the press, said all that could be said: people who bought his work were at liberty to do what they liked with it, but it was nonsense to say that this would do something for artistic appreciation.

It did, however, prove that Epstein, no matter how grotesquely, had connected with the English imagination. No sculptor since has done so as effectively. None has really tried to. Good taste, in various guises, has reigned. The way Epstein got through to people is shown best in a few quotations Gardiner gives from people who were not critics, artists or journalists. Mrs Williams, for example, mother of the philosopher Bernard Williams, said that Genesis ‘captured the feelings of a pregnant woman in a way that no person could ever have imagined’. And although one of the leaders of the TUC said he’d have swapped their Epstein war memorial for Manchester United winning the Cup, at least he didn’t ask for a little more refinement.