Jacob and the Angel 1940-1 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959

Jacob Epstein: Jacob and the Angel 1941

In this programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 today, Antony Gormley focused on the work of  ‘the most important artist, above any other, working in this country at the beginning of the 20th century’ – the sculptor Jacob Epstein. The programme coincides with the 50th anniversary of Epstein’s death, as well as a new exhibition at the Royal Academy, Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill. I was particularly interested in this since Epstein’s work, Jacob and the Angel is currently displayed at the Tate in Liverpool, and, of course, because we have the privilege, in this city, of meeting ‘under a statue exceedingly bare’.

Gormley began by explaining how Epstein attracted criticism during his turbulent career – his work was seen as too graphic or hard hitting, too ‘ugly’ or ‘cannibal’.  Gormley told how the problems began in 1908 when his first major project, to decorate the front of the new British Medical Association Building on the Strand, provoked outrage among conservative critics. Certain newspapers conducted a campaign against his design, and the resulting scandal damaged his reputation, discouraged potential employers, and ultimately destroyed the works themselves.

Epstein: British Medical Association freize detail

Jacob Epstein, British Medical Association freize detail

Zimbabwe House, formerly the British Medical Association building, still displays on its second-storey façade the hacked remnants of the eighteen, eight-foot-high Ages of Man statues with which he decorated the building. Nude sculptures depicting an old woman’s sagging dugs and withered flesh, and a man’s full-frontal nakedness, were the focus of not only the furious campaign against the statues but also signified to his critics that his art transgressed the laws of beauty and sexual propriety. The sequence of nude men and women, symbolising the ages of man, was mutilated when the Rhodesian government took over the building in the 1930s.

Edwardian London proved unprepared for 18 monumental, anatomically correct, naked males in a public place, and the Evening Standard launched a campaign to have them removed. In the 1930s, on the pretext that a fractured stone penis had fallen and nearly killed a pedestrian, the sculptures were castrated and mutilated; thus they remain today, neither fully destroyed nor fully preserved. It was as if the icon-smashing years of the Reformation had never been forgotten. – James Meek, Guardian

Jacob Epstein, Cast from Ages of Man statue

After his death, fellow sculptor, Henry Moore paid tribute to his courage as a pioneering artist who bore the brunt of critical derision: from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s many of Epstein’s works, including Adam, Consummatum Est, Jacob and the Angel and Genesis were exhibited in Blackpool, in an old drapery shop surrounded by red velvet curtains, to be viewed as a shocking curiosity by the holiday-making crowds for the cost of a shilling. After a small tour of American fun fairs, the works were returned to Blackpool and were exhibited in the anatomical curiosities section of the Louis Tussaud’s waxworks. The works were displayed alongside dancing marionettes, diseased body parts and Siamese twin babies in jars.

Jacob Epstein, Consummatum Est

Jacob Epstein, Consummatum Est

Gormley argued that Epstein revived British sculpture in crucial ways: he looked for inspiration from the ancient, non-Western cultures of Egypt, China and Africa; he insisted on ‘direct carving’, where he worked out his ideas straight into the stone, but above all, he made the first British ‘readymade’, alongside Marcel Duchamp when he included a real rock drill, the kind used to drill in quarries, in his pivotal work, The Rock Drill which he completed in 1915. He exhibited the powerful sculpture once that year, after which he completely dismantled it. He hacked the figure of the rock driller apart, and cast its torso in bronze, to resemble a battered soldier – by this time Epstein had seen the ways that the machines he celebrated, could destroy human lives during the First World War.

Jacob Epstein, The Rock Drill

Gormley sketched in the key elements of Epstein’s biography: born on the East Side of New York City in 1880 to Jewish immigrant parents, he moved to Paris in 1902, where he absorbed the work of Rodin and saw ancient Egyptian sculpture in the Louvre. He moved to London in 1905, immediately feeling at home and becoming a British subject.

Jacob Epstein

His first significant commission came in 1907, when he carved the 18 figures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand. Completed the following year, these pieces solidly established the young sculptor’s reputation – he had numerous private commissions for portraits throughout his career. At this time, Epstein’s passion for direct carving in his own work becomes evident and his subject matter is devoted to major human themes and a search for the primordial, archetypal image. From modest beginnings in Paris, his keen interest in African sculpture grew and he amassed one of the finest collections of African art in Britain.

Jacob Epstein, Jacob and the Angel

Jacob Epstein, Jacob and the Angel

Gormley concluded by analysing Jacob and the Angel. The Old Testament story tells how Jacob, at a crisis in his life, wrestles through the night with the angel, who restrains him.  For Gormley, Epstein’s statue is ‘an absolute vision, representing the struggle between matter and spirit’.  It is clear, says Gormley, that for Epstein, the struggle through the night was sexual as well as spiritual: ‘what you have here is post-coital; Jacob is in a swoon, the angel is supporting Jacob, who has just collapsed. Jacob has passed his energy into the angel; his life is now the angel’s’.

Epstein’s legacy in his greatest work, asserts Gormley, is of an artist seeking out ‘real engagement with the unknown…he is not afraid to make large, really heavy things about things that can’t be grasped’.

Liverpool Resurgent, Lewiss, Liverpool

Liverpool Resurgent, Lewis’s Building, Liverpool

We speak with an accent exceedingly rare,
Meet under a statue exceedingly bare

And so to that statue ‘exceedingly bare. Some pretty awful buildings were erected to replace those destroyed in the Blitz, but the Lewis’s building, dating from 1947, with Epstein’s Liverpool Resurgent as its proud main feature, is the exception. The Lewis’s directors decided to commission a statue to identify themselves as being firmly in the van of Liverpool’s rebirth after the ravages of the war. Epstein’s stupendous statue, towering over Ranelagh Place was completed nine years after the building, in 1956.

Children Fighting

Baby In Pram

Children Playing

Epstein also designed the three mural panels below Liverpool Resurgent and  just above the doors representing the new post war generation of children. Children Fighting, Baby In Pram and Children Playing, were completed and installed in 1955, a year before Liverpool Resurgent was unveiled.


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