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Epstein, Sir Jacob (1880-1959) Knight sculptor

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Epstein, Sir Jacob (1880-1959) Knight sculptor
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There are five files at The National Archives which give us some background information on Sir Jacob Epstein. WORK 20/161, WORK 20/175 and WORK 20/332 deal with the Hudson memorial in Hyde Park, London, and WORK 20/222 and WORK 20/284 deal with the statue of Field Marshal Smuts in Parliament Square, Westminster, London.

Epstein was born in New York in 1880, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. Epstein was drawn to the arts and it was at the age of 19 that he turned to sculpture. He worked in a bronze foundry and attended classes run by George Grey Barnard.

In 1902 Epstein left New York to study in Paris and in 1905 moved to London. In 1910 he became a naturalized British citizen.

Epstein first came to public prominence in 1908 when there was a huge controversy over his carvings for the façade of the British Medical Association building in The Strand. These comprised 18 carvings but with their frank depictions of nudity and pregnancy they proved most unpopular. The newspaper, the “Evening Standard” declared that “no careful father” would let his daughter see such works and as Epstein’s reputation grew in the years to follow the verse quoted below began to circulate:-

I don’t like the family Stein.
There is Gert, there is Ep, there is Ein.
Gert’s writings are punk,
Ep’s statues are junk,
Nor can anyone understand Ein.

When the Rhodesian High Commission took over the building in 1935 they found that the statues needed urgent repair (some fragments had already fallen onto the pavement below) but rather than repair them they took off any part of a statue which showed signs of decay and left the statues in a mutilated state. They remain so today (at the now Zimbabwe House), arguably an ugly reminder of an unfortunate episode of artistic censorship/indifference. Some recently taken photographs of what is left of some of the sculptures are shown below; one can see enough from what is left to conclude that the originals were fine works of art and fortunately plaster casts were made before the so-called “decay” was removed so the statues have in a sense been preserved.


From 1911 to 1912 Epstein worked on the tomb of Oscar Wilde in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Some photographs of this tomb are shown below. It was inspired by the Assyrian sculpture which Epstein had seen in the British Museum. The notice shown not to vandalise the tomb is totally ignored and the tomb is full of inscriptions and small representations of a “kiss”.

Epstein worked closely in the period 1910 to 1912 with Eric Gill and together they produced the works “Rom” and “Maternity”.

In 1916 Epstein campaigned unsuccessfully to be appointed a war artist; it was in this period that he produced “The Tin Hat”, “Sergeant Hunter V.C.” and “Admiral Lord Fisher”. These can be seen at the Imperial War Museum in London. In the autumn of 1917 he was conscripted as a private into the 38th (Jewish) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers but was discharged in 1918 having suffered a breakdown. He never left England.

In the 1920s Epstein’s output included the memorial to W. H. Hudson, the subject of WORK 20/161 and WORK 20/175, and also his huge figures “Night” and “Day” executed for the London Underground Headquarters at St James’s Park. Photographs of these two sculptures are shown below.



“Night” features a woman with closed eyes holding a child across her knees and soothing him to sleep. “Day” features a man with a boy between his knees. There were another eight figures carved at the London Underground H/Q, in a composition entitled “The Winds”, three by Eric Gill with Henry Moore, Allan Wyon, A.H.Gerrard, Eric Aumonier and F.Rabinovitch carving one each. Eric Aumonier also sculpted "The Archer" above Finchley Underground Station. Rabinovitch, born in Manchester in 1903 into a poor Russian Jewish family, was a colourful character. Educated at the Manchester School of Art and the Slade School. At Manchester he studied under Adolphe Valette, who was to inspire L.S.Lowry,and at the Slade under Henry Tonks. In 1929 Rabinovitch decided not to pursue sculpture, changed his name to Sam Rabin,and worked as a professional wrestler and film-actor. He performed as the Champion Wrestler alongside Charles Laughton in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII. 1949 saw him appointed teacher of drawing at Goldsmiths’ College and Rabin concentrated on drawings of the boxing ring, principally in coloured crayon. In 1965 he transferred from Goldsmiths’ to the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art, where he taught until 1985.

Epstein’s work again proved controversial; in October 1936 the figure of “Day” was covered in tar;on an earlier occasion it had been painted in white paint and “Night” would have been “tarred and feathered” save for the timely intervention of a patrolling policeman.

Epstein produced some major works in the 1930s and during the Second World War he carried out some portrait commissions for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee which included Ernest Bevin and Winston Churchill.

After the war he produced the work “Christ in Majesty” as part of the restoration after bomb-damage of Llandaff Cathedral. Sir Stanley Spencer contributed a painting of the Last Judgement. He also produced the work “Behold the Man” in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral.

Some photographs of the Llandaff work are shown below. The first shows how one has an immediate view of the sculpture as one enters through the main door.


His last major carving “Lazarus” was exhibited in Battersea Park as part of the Festival of Britain. This was subsequently purchased by New College in Oxford for their chapel. He also produced at this time “Madonna and Child” for the convent of the Holy Child Jesus in Cavendish Square, London.

Epstein was also commissioned by the Arts Council to produce a work for the South Bank Exhibition as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The work was “Youth Advances”. This is now in the Whitworth Art Galley in Manchester. Photographs of the work “in situ” on the South Bank can be seen in The National Archives file WORK 25/213.

WORK 20/161 deals with the Statue commemorating W.H.Hudson which stands in the Bird Sanctuary Memorial north of the Serpentine Bridge. This was to prove another controversial Epstein work..

The file opens with a letter from the W.H.Hudson Memorial Committee dated 11th January 1923 and closes with letters dated 15th March 1926, from Geological Survey and Museum dealing with some repairs. Between these dates the correspondence deals with the erection of the memorial and its siting. The said committee had already commissioned Epstein to execute the sculpture so H.M Office of Works was not involved in making that choice.

We learn that the sculpture represents Nature in the character of “Rima” , the imaginary person, half human, half spirit, in Hudson’s book “Green Mansions”, Epstein had included trees and birds as background. The architect was Muirhead Bone.

By 26th June 1923 the Office of Works, having seen a sketch and model, were saying that they could not agree to the memorial being erected .The Sites Committee felt “that the sculptured stone would evoke wide and even bitter controversy and that even the setting leaves much to be desired.”

The W H Hudson Memorial committee then wrote that they would ask Mr.Epstein to submit another design.

Epstein submitted another model and the sites committee considered this at a meeting on 8th February 1924. Sir George Frampton a committee member, was strongly opposed to the model being accepted “The birds were out of proportion to the figure and not in flight. The work showed an entire absence of knowledge of the human figure and made no attempt to be true to nature. There was no character in the whole conception”. Frampton was however the only dissenting voice and the Office of Works gave the go ahead on the 11th February 1924.

In May 1925 we read that the unveiling was imminent and that the Prime Minister would carry out the unveiling. After the unveiling we read that there was much controversy and on 26th May 1925 we learn that a police guard was being mounted. The First Commissioner wrote at the time. “The howl against Epstein will I am convinced gradually fizzle out, but for the moment there is some slight danger, in my opinion, of some lunatic attempting damage.”

WORK 20/175, the second file devoted to the Hudson memorial in the main contains newspaper cuttings covering the controversy, running from May to December 1925. The file is titled “BIRD SANCTUARY MEMORIAL HYDE PARK. AGITATION FOR AND AGAINST REMOVAL”. It is an interesting read with newspaper headings proclaiming “The Hyde Park Atrocity” and there was a suggestion from one person that the panel “be hammered to pieces”. To balance this there are articles and letters praising the memorial.

There were questions raised on more than one occasion in the House of Commons (in one debate there was a reference to “Bolshevik art”) and in November 1925 the Epstein panel was painted green by way of protest. In the file we can read the police report on the incident. We then read that the statue was “tarred and feathered “in October 1929 and daubed again with paint in January 1930.

The file ends with a further police report of 8th October 1935 reporting that the memorial had been disfigured by a chemical and the final letter states that the stains were being removed.

The third file, WORK 20/332, deals mostly with "care and maintenance" matters but we do learn that Eric Gill had carved the inscriptions for the Hudson memorial.

Some photographs of the Hudson memorial are shown below.

These were taken on a hot summer day in August 2007 (the shadows created by the sun have partially hidden the upper part of the work) and standing in such a peaceful location and looking at the work itself it was hard to believe that they caused so much controversy in the 1920s!

The National Archives files WORK 20/222 and WORK 20/284 gives us some background information on the memorial to Field Marshal J.C.Smuts situated on the north side of Parliament Square which was the work of Epstein.

WORK 20/222 opens with a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office to Ministry of Works raising the question of a memorial being erected in London to General Smuts and follows the discussions held as a consequence, including a statement in the House of Commons by Clement Attlee on 7th June 1951. There is then correspondence about the choice of sculptor and the site.

On 26th June 1952 the matter was again raised in Parliament, this time by Winston Churchill who was now Prime Minister.

The discussions on the choice of sculptor continued and finally on 23rd April 1953 the Field Marshal Smuts Memorial Committee met and it was agreed that Epstein be appointed for a fee of £10,000.

At the back of the file there are some black and white photographs including some photographs of the work of the South African sculptor, Coert Steynberg, who had been put forward at one stage as a potential sculptor.

WORK 20/284 opens with a note dated 7th May 1953 advising the First Commissioner Office of Works that the Smuts Memorial Committee had decided to recommend the appointment of Epstein as the sculptor. At that stage Epstein was 73 years of age. In a hand written note on this memo the First Commissioner says that he welcomes Mr.Epstein as the sculptor. We learn that Epstein is already working on a maquette and that the completed statue will be in bronze.

An agreement was drafted undertaking to pay Epstein £ 10,000 for the work involved and a draft press notice was written. This confirmed the Minister of Works’ appointment of Epstein, said the work was expected to take about two years, and that the advisory committee who had recommend Epstein had been chaired by Lord Harlech, and that the members were Lord Methuen, The Rt.Hon.C.R.Attlee, M.P. The Rt.Hon.Clement Davies, M.P., Sir Kenneth Clark (former Director of the National Gallery), and Sir Percy Thomas, P.P.R.B.A.

At this stage the press release was put on hold as it was decided that the approval of the Royal Fine Art Commission should be sought. Epstein was sent the agreement on 8th July 1953.

In July 1953 Harlech writes to the Minister of Works saying that he has seen two preliminary sketches by Epstein but was unhappy with them. Epstein asked for more photographs etc of Smuts so that he had a better feel for his subject. The press were now advised of the commission and there are various press cuttings in the file.

There was some concern expressed about Epstein’s appointment. One letter in the file reads ““but may I beg & implore you to see that his work may resemble & be a fitting representation of a very fine gentleman, instead of the grotesque, bulging, ugly statues that he (Epstein) usually makes”

In September 1953 the Royal Fine Art Commission, who had yet to see Epstein’s maquette, were writing about the suitability of Parliament Square as the site for the memorial and Harlech expressed the hope to the Minister of Works that the Royal Fine Arts Commission would not raise any serious objections to the site chosen.

Discussions regarding the site went on for some time, with a detailed replanning of the whole square being discussed , but the Royal Fine Arts Commission were still unhappy. It was not the subject of the memorial or indeed the choice of Epstein which was exercising their minds but the use of Parliament Square. They thought too many statues would detract from the Square’s overall appeal.

By June 7th 1954 Epstein was announcing that he wanted the committee to come to his studio to see Smut’s statue for which he had now produced a full size clay model and a meeting was fixed at Epstein’s studio at 18 Hyde Park Gate (no mention is made of the Royal Fine Art Commission seeing or approving the maquette but one assumes this had been done). The Clay model was well received by those committee members who could attend –Harlech, Clement Davies and Percy Thomas, as well as the Minister of Works and a Mr. Learey, However it was thought that Sir Kenneth Clarke and Clement Attlee,who had been unable to attend Epstein’s studio meeting should be given the chance to see the work.

On 30th July the Royal Fine Art Commisson at last approved the siting and on 25th August 1954 Kenneth Clarke wrote accepting the merit of Epstein’s work “altogether I think Epstein should be warmly congratulated for the courage and wholeheartedness with which he has worked on this commission”.

Attlee subsequently gave his approval and the go ahead was given to proceed to the bronze casting stage.and discussions were held on the pedestal.

All loose ends now appear to have been tackled, the pedestal having been the subject of protracted discussion and in October 1955 we read that the bronze had been cast, and in November Epstein was paid his final instalment of £ 4000, although the granite for the pedestal was still awaited from South Africa.

We then learn by a letter of 20th February, 1956 from Sinclair & Co in South Africa that the granite block for the pedestal had been damaged.

This caused further delays and we read from a short report in The Daily Telegraph that the bronze statue, now complete, was being stored in the Tate.

The unveiling was fixed for 7th November 1956. Winston Churchill was unwell so the Speaker of the House of Commons, W.S.Morrison, performed the task. There is a comprehensive report on the ceremony in the file.

The final letters on file concern the objections of Lord Brand to the statue . He writes on the 21st January 1960 expressing his dislike for the statue and suggesting it be removed. He says that at the unveiling he had turned to Lord Harlech and said “this is simply ghastly”. He says in his letter that he will raise the matter in the House of Lords. An internal Office of Works note then follows. There is little agreement with Lord Brand and the note finishes-“ Indeed it seems to me that Lord Brand would be singularly ill-advised to raise the matter in the House of Lords so soon after the sculptor’s death: I should expect that in such circumstances public opinion would rally strongly in defence of the sculptor’s memory”.

On 3rd February 1960 the file ends with a copy of the reply to Lord Brand which says “In all these circumstances, I am afraid I would not feel justified in taking away the statue”. Rather sadly the letter ends “Having said what I have thought it my duty to say to you, I must add the irrelevant comment that I greatly dislike the statue myself”.

A recent photograph of the Smuts statue is shown below.

At the back of file WORK 20/284 are some interesting loose papers which include some photographs of Smuts, and a photograph of an oil painting of Smuts, no doubt sent to Epstein so that he could capture a good likeness. There is also a photograph of the clay model.

Some photographs are shown below of Epstein’s “Madonna and Child” in Cavendish Square London.

Epstein also produced the war memorial for the Trades Union Congress in Great Russell Street, London. A photograph is shown below. A mournful evocation of loss, a lone woman supports the limp naked body of a dead soldier.

TUC War Memorial

He also produced “St Michael and the Devil” for the new Coventry Cathedral (see below) and between 1951 and 1953 produced a huge group “Social Consciousness” for Philadelphia. He also produced the Blake Memorial for Westminster Abbey and the Bowater House Group, five figures in bronze, in Knightsbridge.

The Bowater House Sculpture was entitled “The Rush of Green”. The bronze depicts a family and their dog rushing forward towards the park to enjoy the clean air and green spaces. “Pan charms them and nature pulls them away from the offices, shops, and dwellings behind”.

The present Bowater House complex has been demolished, and the Epstein sculpture is held "in storage". It will be put back in place some time in 2009 when the new buildings are completed.

Epstein died from a heart attack in 1959 and is buried in Putney Vale cemetery in London. A few minutes before his heart attack he had been looking at the completed Bowater House group mentioned above.

At the time of his death Epstein was working on a memorial statue to David Lloyd George to be erected in the inner lobby of the House of Commons. This work had to be completed by Nimptsch. The National Archives files WORK 20/273, WORK 20/274, WORK 20/275 and WORK 20/312 cover this memorial.

WORK 20/273 covers the period 1955 to 1957 and the forming of a committee to decide on the site and the sculptor for the memorial to Lloyd George. The site of the Member’s Lobby in the House of Commons was chosen.

WORK 20/274 continues from February 1957 to December 1958 and we learn that Jacob Epstein was the sculptor chosen for a fee of £ 10,000. In June 1958 Epstein’s clay model was seen and approved with some minor modifications. There was then some discussion as to the type of stone to be used and when the file closes in December 1958 the stone had not been decided on or whether the statue should be in bronze.

WORK 20/275 opens with a note dated 10th December 1958. We read that Epstein really prefers bronze but a sample of Forest of Dean stone is considered and taken to the Member’s Lobby to see how it looked in situ. Discussions as the material dragged on into 1959 but by July 1959 Epstein writes that a full scale model had been made and a block of Larrys Roche (the chosen stone) was being delivered to his studio.

In August 1959 we read that Epstein had died. New negotiations were then necessary and new committees formed. It seems that Epstein had not taken the work to a level where it could be easily finished off by another sculptor. New financial arrangements had to be made and finally the sculptor, Uli Nimptsch was commissioned to execute a statue in bronze. The scale model was ready for inspection in August 1962 and in July 1963 the final model was ready for the process of casting in bronze to be started. At the back of this file is a copy of the “Order of Service” for the memorial service for Sir Jacob Epstein held in St Paul’s Cathedral on 10th November 1959.

A further file WORK 20/312 covers the eventual unveiling ceremony.The statue was unveiled on 18th December 1963 by the then Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Hume. An earlier file WORK 20/310 covers correspondence with Lsdy Lloyd George on the eventual choice of Nimptsch after Epstein's death and the progress towards unveiling.

Epstein had been given a knighthood in 1954.

There are three works by Jacob Epstein to be seen in Coventry Cathedral. The old St.Michael’s had been designated Coventry’s second cathedral in 1918 and was destroyed by German bombs in November 1940. The bombing raid on Coventry saw 568 people killed. A new Cathedral was built, designed by Sir Basil Spence, and consecrated on the 25th May 1962.

1. The work “Ecce Homo”. This stands in the ruins of the old Cathedral. Some photographs taken in March of 2008 are shown below. This work was executed by Epstein from 1934/35 and depicts Christ standing before Pontius Pilate. The work was donated by Epstein’s widow after his death.



2. The glass doors leading to the west screen contain cherub-handles carved by Epstein.


3. To the right of the steps leading up to the great porch in front of the cathedral is Epstein’s cast bronze sculpture “St.Michael and the Devil”. This work weighs 4 tons and is over 19 feet in height.






There are three Treasury Files held at The National Archives which add to our knowledge of Coventry Cathedral. T 233/2464 concerns the Graham Sutherland Tapestry. This Treasury File concerns the specific approval that the Great Tapestry being woven by the French Company Pinton Freres be imported without payment of Duty .T 233/2465 concerns Treasury approval that the five stained glass windows designed by the Swedish artist Einar Forseth be free from import duty when imported.

T 233/1576 is a more general Treasury File covering the subject of the payment of duty for articles being imported for ecclesiastical use. We learn from this file that there was no loom in Britain sufficiently large to weave Sutherland’s Tapestry. Originally it was intended that the Tapestry be made by the Edinburgh Tapestry Company but they did not own a loom sufficiently large to tackle Sutherland’s work. We learn that the Tapestry was woven at Aubusson in France under the direction of Madame Marie Cutolli, one of the world’s greatest authorities on Tapestries.

There is also a fine bronze bust of Bishop Woods in Lichfield Cathedral. A photograph of this work taken in August 2008 is shown below.


Epstein's bust of Bishop Wood in Litchfield Cathedral


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