A Guide to the Work of Sir Jacob Epstein

Hailed as one of the leading British portrait sculptors of the 20th century


Hailed as one of the leading British portrait sculptors of the 20th century, the story of Sir Jacob Epstein’s career is one marred with criticism and persecution before finally achieving deserved recognition in the last decade of his life. A highly controversial figure, he was a talented sculptor and artist with a vision beyond his time, he is widely celebrated today for his portrait pieces, sculptures and surviving public monuments.

Jacob Epstein was born on the 10th of November 1880 in New York to Orthodox Polish-Jewish parents. He suffered from pleurisy as a child which resulted in extended periods of bedrest, which is likely to have stimulated his interest in drawing. Epstein left school at aged thirteen to attend the Art Students League of New York until 1898. He broke away from his faith and consequently his family, and by 1899 he was attending night school studying sculpture under George Grey Bernard. The year after his home burnt down in 1900, he found work at a bronze foundry.

Sir Jacob Epstein(1880-1959), Bust of Princess Menen

Estimate £5,000 - £7,000

Following his first major commission to illustrate Hutchins Hapgood's book, The Spirit of the Ghetto in 1902, he used the proceeds to travel to Paris where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, the Académie Julian and various museums. Ancient and primitive sculpture aroused a particular fascination within Epstein, he studied non-European sculpture from India, the Far East, China, Africa, and Native America, which would have a profound lifelong influence on his work. Epstein met a married Scottish woman ten years his senior, Margaret Dunlop, at Rodin’s studio. She encouraged him to visit London, which he did in 1904, staying with Dunlop and her husband for the duration. The following year Epstein settled in London and Dunlop left her husband to join him. As soon as her divorce was finalised the pair were married in 1906.

Despite his marriage to Dunlop, Epstein had several affairs with other women which resulted in his five children. His longest relationship was with Kathleen Garman, mother to three of his offspring, whom he married in 1955 following the death of Margaret Epstein in 1947.

Throughout 1907, the year that Epstein became a British citizen, and 1908, he worked on his first major public commission, a series of eighteen statues for Charles Holden's new British Medical Association building on The Strand in London. As was the norm, each model was created by Epstein and then cast in plaster before being copied in stone by commercial architectural carvers, Epstein would later reject this process in favour of direct carving. During this time Augustus John commissioned Epstein to create a portrait of his son, Romilly, which would emerge into a series of portraits of the child. Upon the unveiling of The Strand sculptures, six of the models which represented aspects of medicine and science garnered little attention, but the twelve figures representing different stages of life triggered enormous public outrage and chastisement for their sexually explicit and perceived insulting nature. Although several public figures, artists and critics including the Bishop of Stepney, Cosmo Gordon Lang, rallied to defend Epstein’s creations, the scandal had a damaging effect on his potential future prospects. Financially challenged and depressed, Epstein would spend the rest of 1908 producing smaller pieces and busts until the announcement that he had been appointed the sculptor for a new Oscar Wilde tomb in Paris.

After studying Wilde’s work, Epstein produced a monumental “winged demon angel” statue in 1912, carved directly into the stone from a block of Hopton Wood. Well-received by the British press when it was displayed in London for public viewing, it was upon installation in the Père Lachaise Cemetery that Parisian authorities deemed the monument indecent due to the creature’s testicles and had it covered with a tarpaulin. Epstein refused to alter his creation and eventually, against his wishes, a fig-leaf plaque was commissioned to cover the offending appendage. He travelled to Paris throughout this conflict meeting, befriending Picasso, Brancusi, and Modigliani along the way, who would play an influential role in his future work.

Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Head of Ivan Maisky

Estimate £2,000 - £3,000

Back in England, Epstein was part of a group of artists hired to produce artworks for a new nightclub which led him to become involved with Wyndham Lewis and the short-lived Vorticists movement. He produced some of his most radical creations during this time including his Flenite figures made from Serpentinite and three pairs of copulating carved marble doves, culminating with The Rock Drill (1913-1915). The Avant Garde sculpture featured an unaltered industrial drill and a futuristic cast gunmetal torso, symbolic said Epstein as “the terrible Frankenstein's monster we have made ourselves into”. The Rock Drill received widespread criticism and abuse, so much so that Epstein dismantled the creation in 1916 leaving only a legless one-armed torso.

Epstein increasingly shifted his focus towards creating more figurative, and accepted, pieces in the form of portrait busts. Over his career, many notable figures would sit for him including Admiral Lord Fisher, Joseph Conrad, Paul Robeson, Sir Andrew Cunningham, General Sir Alan Cunningham, Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Ernest Bevin, John Anderson, Winston Churchill, and Albert Einstein. 

While Epstein would never produce anything as audacious as The Rock Drill again, his private creative work throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s was almost guaranteed to elicit the onslaught of harsh criticism and vicious scrutiny. During this period, he created The Risen Christ, Genesis, Behold the Man (Ecce Homo), Consummatum Est, Adam, Jacob and the Angel, and Lucifer. Labelled as indecent and primitive, Epstein’s works were predominantly ostracised from society. His memorial for W.H. Hudson in Hyde Park was regularly vandalised and defaced, while his Day and Night carving at the London Electric Railway headquarters was only spared due to its inaccessible location. The controversy would cause public commissions to disappear for twenty years, leaving Epstein to rely on his busts and paintings of landscapes and flowers to financially support his family. He also held an exhibition in New York which was deemed successful, he designed and painted a stage curtain for the ballet David at the Duke of York's Theatre which was well-liked, and also produced illustrations for an edition of Les Fleurs du mal by Baudelaire.

Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Bust of The Honourable Wynne Godley

Esitmate £3,000-£5,000

When the Second World War ended, there was a significant change in attitudes towards Epstein and his work, resulting in the busiest period of his career. He received commissions for the statue Youth Advancing, for the 1951 Festival of Britain, as well as the bronze Madonna and Child for the bomb-damaged Cavendish Square buildings of the Convent of the Holy Child; his 1947 carving of Lazarus was bought by New College, Oxford and installed in the chapel. This new appreciation for Epstein’s work led to an unprecedented demand for his creations and public commissions. 

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Llandaff Cathedral, and the British Government, all submitted commissions to Epstein while the previously disapproving Tate held a retrospective exhibition of his work. In 1954 he was knighted and in the following years he received commissions for the new Coventry Cathedral (St Michael and the Devil), the Trade Union Congress and Westminster Abbey. In the last year of Epstein’s life, he created a portrait sculpture of Princess Margaret, as well as a portrait of David Lloyd George for the Houses of Parliament, and The Rush of Green sculpture, also known as Pan or The Bowater House Group – which he completed just before he died in August 1959.

Epstein’s personally significant private works are now installed throughout the United Kingdom, Adam is in the entrance hall of Harewood House, Consummatum Est is in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and Genesis is at The Whitworth in Manchester. The Tate holds an Epstein collection which includes Jacob and the Angel, Sun God/Primeval Gods, a version of Doves and Torso in Metal.

Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), a lead maquette of The Madonna and Child

Esitmate £6,000-£8,000

The Strand sculptures represented Epstein's first attempt to break away from traditional European iconography, erosion led to the decay of these figures and in 1937 the new owners of the building were ordered to make it safe. Sadly, parts of each statue were hacked off, including heads and hands of all eighteen figures, the feet of most of them and other defining features, such as the figure of a new-born baby from Infancy, the remnants are still visible today at what is now Zimbabwe House.

Epstein was dedicated to emancipating British sculpture from the puritanism, hypocrisy and prurience of society's attitudes, his work substantially influenced the younger generation of sculptors such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and his principles became central to twentieth-century practice. A master of “truth to material” and direct carving, together with his fascination of intimacy, fertility, human life and primal art, his sculptures were attacked with monotonous regularity until the 1950s. Had he not been subjected to such harsh criticism, malevolent attacks, and public scandal, who knows what “ahead of his time” pieces he would have produced.


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