Jacob Epstein
Biography of Modernist Sculptor, Famous for "Adam" and Tomb of Oscar Wilde.

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Adam (1938) Harewood House, Leeds.
The famous biblical statue by
Jacob Epstein, one of the great
innovators of plastic art.

Jacob Epstein (1880–1959)


Early Life and Training
"Rock Drill"
Sculpture Busts
Large Scale Commissions
Sculptures by Jacob Epstein

Further Resources

• For the evolution of plastic art, see: History of Sculpture.
• For the world's finest 3-D works, see: Greatest Sculptures.
• For the best artists, see: Greatest Sculptors.


The American-born British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, was one of the most important early pioneers of Modern British sculpture during the 1930s and 40s. Although he was also a successful portraitist, sculpting the portraits of eminent people such as Winston Churchill, TS Eliot and Albert Einstein, his real desire was to create serious and meaningful sculpture that would 'confront our enfeebled generation'. Although a master of stone and marble sculpture, as well as wood-carving, many of his works proved controversial, but his Bohemian appearance and connections to high society ensured that he was not ignored. His Rock Drill (1913, original now lost) astounded many when it was exhibited in 1915, both for its brutality and its use of real mechanical parts. Other noteworthy works include The Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1912, Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris) and Jacob and the Angel (1940, Granada Television Studios). He ranks alongside Henry Moore, David Hockney and Lucian Freud as one of the greatest modern artists of 20th century Britain. See also works by his German expressionist contemporary Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919).



Early Life and Training

Epstein was born in New York. As a child he was quite ill, so he spent long periods indoors, sketching. In 1896 he took classes at the Art Students League and then attended night school to study drawing and sculptural modeling (by day he worked in a bronze foundry). It was here that he began sculpting under George Grey Bernard (1863-1938).

With the proceeds of his first commission in illustrating Hutchins Hapgood's The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902), Epstein was able to move to Paris, where he studied at the Academie Julian and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It was in Paris that he was greatly inspired by primitivist sculptural forms during a visit to the Trocadero Museum. In 1905 he moved to London, where he was married the following year. He surrounded himself with a bohemian artistic crowd and was determined to distinguish his art from all others. In 1907 he received his first major commission - 18 figures for the facade of the British Medical Association's head office. Instead of using forms from conventional Greek sculpture, he chose to experiment with Indian figures which were considered overtly sensual. The results were loudly deplored. Other works from this period include Maternity (1910, Leeds City); The Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1912) and a bronze Head of the Poet W.H. Davies (1916, Newport Museum of Art, UK). He became a British Citizen in 1910.

In 1912 Epstein travelled to Paris, where he met three of the most famous 20th Century sculptors - all members of the Ecole de Paris - namely Modigliani (1884-1920), Picasso (1881-1973) and the Romanian Constantin Brancusi (1886-1957). Returning to England, he became a founding member of the London Group in 1913 which was an amalgamation of the Camden Town group and the English Vorticism movement. The group was reacting to the traditional influence of the Royal Academy, and were determined to organize their own exhibitions, focusing mainly on modern art, including painting and sculpture. Other key members were Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957), Walter Richard Sickert (1860–1942) and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915). The same year Epstein had his first solo exhibition at Gallery Twenty-One. After this he exhibited mainly at the Leicester Gallery.

Rock Drill

His first celebrated but highly controversial work, Rock Drill was created in 1913. A totemic figure, half-robot, half-human, it was mounted on a real drill and conveyed an image of both mechanical and physical energy. Exhibited in 1915, it astounded its audience because of its brutality and use of real mechanical parts. In 1916, following the carnage of World War I, he removed the drill and cut the figure down so that only the torso remained. He then ripped part of the arms off. The remaining torso was cast in bronze, and can be seen in the Tate Modern, UK. By removing the limbs, Epstein powerfully conveyed a victim of modern life, shorn of its virility. The once powerful man-machine is now vulnerable and impotent.

Sculpture Busts

Much as Epstein desired to focus on more 'meaningful' large-scale sculptures, he did gather a reputation for his innovative portrait busts, in a variety of media. In 1928 he sculpted the head of Paul Robeson, a popular film star. Working primarily in bronze and marble, Epstein received commissions to portray a wide variety of figures from all echelons of society - including industry, the arts, science and politics. One of his most significant subjects was his bust of Winston Churchill (1946), which sold in 2010 at Christie's for £75,650.

Large-Scale Commissions

In line with his desire to create serious works, Epstein worked on a series of commissions in the 1930s and early 1940s involving a number of huge carvings on biblical subjects. These works of Christian art included Genesis (1930, Granada TV), Behold the Man (1935, Coventry Cathedral), Adam (1939, Lord Harewood Collection) and Jacob and the Angel (1940, Granada TV). The latter work in particular was heavily criticized for its primeval violence. He also created some figurative sculptures, including his Lucifer (1945, Birmingham Museum) which was also not well received. In fact, he offered it as a gift to the Tate Modern and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, both of which turned it down. Nonetheless, he continued to receive commissions, working literally to the end. On the day he died he completed the Bowater House Group, a group sculpture placed in Knightsbridge, London.

Despite the controversy that surrounded much of his work, Epstein gradually raised sympathy for his efforts. He published 2 volumes of autobiography (1940 and 1955) which helped raise awareness of what he was trying to achieve. The Arts Council gave him a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1953 and he was knighted the following year. Commemorative exhibitions were held in London and Edinburgh in 1961 and a retrospective in Leeds and London in 1987.



Important Sculptures By Jacob Epstein

- The Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1912, Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris)
- Rock Drill (1913, Tate Modern, London)
- Venus Marble (1917, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven)
- Memorial to W.H. Hudson (Rima) (1925, Hyde Park, London)
- Night and Day (1928-9, St James' Underground)
- Genesis (1930, Granada TV)
- Bronze Head of Albert Einstein Bronze (1933, Honolulu Academy of Arts)
- Behold the Man (1935, Coventry Cathedral)
- Adam (1938, Harewood House)
- Jacob and the Angel (1940, Granada Television Studios)
- Lucifer (1945, Birmingham Museum)
- Bust of Winston Churchill (1946, Private Collection)
- Lazarus (1947-48, New College Chapel, Oxford)
- Madonna and Child (1950-52, Cavendish Square, London)
- Social Consciousness (1951-3, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia)
- Christ in Majesty (1954-5, Llandaff Cathedral)

Sculptures by Jacob Epstein can be seen in some of the best art museums and sculpture gardens around the world.

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