Woking, an early Epstein portrait and a link to a lost work

I happened upon Jacob Epstein’s Italian Peasant Woman in Shawl recently, part of the remarkable sculptures in the Ingram Collection of Modern British Art assembled by media entrepreneur Chris Ingram, who has enabled his home town of Woking to see art which might normally grace the likes of Tate Britain, via its loan to the Marks Barfield-designed Lightbox Museum and Gallery. Julia Barfield and David Marks were behind the London Eye and the Woking building is similarly worth seeing.

The Peasant Woman head was created in 1907, at around the time Epstein was given the commission for 18 figures on the British Medical Association building in the Strand. The modelled figure for Newborn, an old lady cradling a baby, shows a clear connection to the modelling of the bronze head. This prestigious early commission saw Epstein quickly assembling many new models to create the clays for plaster casts which were then carved by architectural stonemasons in Portland stone, under Epstein’s supervision and finishing. It is interesting to see this work prior to the present sad state of all the figures, mutilated on the grounds of taste some 30 years later, when the Rhodesian High Commission purchased the building. The account here and in both the Epstein biographies listed below makes interesting reading.
Remember the 18 figures were translated from modelled works. Notably, this was several years before both Epstein and Eric Gill converged on direct carving of the block as their chosen way forward for sculpture. Interestingly, journals suggest that on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s first meeting with his near-neighbour Epstein, Gaudier quickly rushed back to his own studio to start a carving as a result of having not wanted to declare he didn’t work stone as part of his own body of work.

New York collector John Quinn was introduced to Jacob Epstein by Augustus John around 1910, and his patronage became more important as that of William Rothenstein waned. In 1916, Quinn was desperate to purchase more of Epstein’s work, and bought the Peasant Woman head along with a Flenite carved figure and the 1915 bronze head of Iris Beerbohm Tree, perhaps as he realised that the forthcoming monograph by critic (and friend) T. E. Hulme would provide the first critical estimation of Epstein’s body of work.

The early Epstein portraits of Iris Tree and the head of Augustus John’s son Romilly develop the impetus of the earlier ‘observed’ Peasant Woman head in using a strong, ovoid mass to contrast the smaller interlocking forms of the face. In the Romilly John and Iris Tree bronzes, the contrast was heightened through abstraction and a differential polished patina to the bobbed helmet of hair. But look at the Courtauld Institute archive’s photograph of the original Iris Tree clay; less iconic but perhaps a better balanced, more sensitive portrait?

 The Romilly appears invincible, militaristic and slightly menacing – as I suppose some two-year olds can be. But the works have become pieces of sculpture in their own right – do they continue to have an intrinsic link to the sitter other than in the most obvious physical characteristics? The generations  – and their memories – pass, whilst the immortal portrait endures.

Interesting too to observe the contrast in material, tone and reflectivity in otherwise identical Frank Dobson portraits of Osbert Sitwell; the National Portrait Gallery has both.

My intensive 3 day clay portraiture course in March 2012 at The Edward James Foundation’s West Dean College was booked up three months in advance. The group work with two models on successive days; the first to get into the concentration of looking without preconceiving… and the second, afresh, to allow a rigorous 5 hours towards a portrait sketch which will be hollowed before the course ends and fired for you to collect at a later date. There are still some spaces available when it runs next on the 25-27th August. For the detailed course notes see here.

Demons and Angels: A Life of Jacob Epstein (2002) June Rose ISBN 0786710004
Epstein: Artist Against the Establishment (1993) Stephen Gardiner ISBN 0 00 654598 X
The Ingram Collection of Modern British Art (2009) Michael Regan; Peter Hall; Claire Bailey-Coombs ISBN 978-0-9555166-1-0
The Lightbox, Woking GU21 4AA.  Open Tues-Sunday; free entrance.  www.thelightbox.org.uk

Portrait sculpture – conscious, subconscious, unconscious?

Worthing Museum had an interesting sculpture exhibition on in 2011/12, featuring the Latvian-born Dora Gordin (1895-1991) – she later changed this to Gordine – who settled in London after studying music and art in Paris. It is co-curated with Dorich House, where the artist lived and where the Gordine archive continues to reside in the care of Kingston University’s Brenda Martin. I’ve got a soft spot for Worthing’s permanent collection and visiting after a year’s gap since exhibiting there, it was lovely to see the work of one artist in the top gallery space. Gordine’s portrait heads sometimes seem to have plinths with more mass than they might require, but are formally strong; particularly the ones with solid, flat patination.
This clip of a new feature-length documentary on Gordine is rather interesting – uploaded by Director Annaleena Piel Linna, it give some idea of the sculptor’s vocal strength, which draws to mind the powerful, arresting handwriting in some of the letters on display at Worthing.
Her last husband, The Hon. Richard Hare, was instrumental in propelling her into the London society that allowed portrait commissions to arise with the great and good; similar to Jacob Epstein who was born 15 years earlier and entertained many formal sittings from the fashionable, bohemian and artistic crowd he lived amongst, as well as keeping his hand in with many heads of his wife and children, models and lovers.
Interviewed by the BBC in 1972, Gordine commented “when you do a portrait bust of somebody you only do their noses and mouth and all that – and it is nothing! You have to imagine what they are like inside and to bring out their inward life, inward feelings,and then put it in a form. And whether its true or not, what do I care!” When asked whether she felt that she was capturing the soul, she agreed, suggesting: “the feeling, the nostalgia, the dream – all that you have to put it in your sculpture.”

Jacob Epstein’s ethos for portraiture is also documented in the 1932 publication The Sculptor Speaks in which the sculptor was in conversation with Arnold L Haskell (here pages 61-66):
“I give a complete portrait – and a sculptural work as well by bringing out what is interesting and significant in a face”.  Haskell then suggested it is for us [the viewer] to tell the artist what is in a work, to which Epstein replied “… superstition. People see the artist as a medium, possessed by a certain force that he cannot control or reason about. I am fully conscious of what I am doing and can judge the result and character of my sitters.”  Epstein went on the discuss Rodin who, he purported,  had acted the role of the somnambulist artist, probably to flatter some journalists he was talking to, suggesting: “I don’t know exactly what I meant to do here. You tell me.”

Two pages later, Epstein added “the artist doesn’t cheat nature but he must translate it and render it as he sees fit… it is always necessary to accentuate some particular trait that gives the character to the face and distinguish it from other faces. A man is an artist because he has the necessary judgement and skill to know what accentuation is necessary.”

Talking about his bust of Joseph Conrad, “I went entirely by what I saw… in portraiture the artist must depict what he sees of his sitter and not be influenced by what he knows of him or think he knows about him. I always set out conscientiously to give as good a likeness as I can. Without that a portrait has no value as such”.
So, slightly contradictory stuff, it seems. How can he have been fully conscious of his accentuation whilst giving as good a likeness as he can? I personally feel the accentuated traits in some of his lesser heads appear to sit dangerously on the cusp of caricature.  Strong forms – but with the impression of over-conscious actions.

I follow the working method of Alan Thornhill (b.1921), whose portraiture relies on the building of a formal equivalent to the head of the sitter through overcoming our ‘notions of normality’. This relies on perception, avoiding pre-conceived thought and concentrating on observational rigour rather than knowledge. Our own perception – our personal way of seeing – thus provides something of the sculptor entering the work – but it is with the carefully cultivated involvement of the subconscious mind, perhaps, rather than an unconscious approach as per the Rodin story. Anything can creep into the work if one is prepared to let it.

As the use of measuring calipers grows at the expense of pure unadulterated observation, the translation of the relationships between plastic forms becomes more efficient and mechanised. The building of a formal equivalent is lost in favour of copying. Portrait work is taken out of the realm of art-object as the sculptor’s input of pure creative energy is lost. At their most efficient, these processes can be seen in Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, but the use of calipers is common with the “professional” portrait sculptor who makes a living from the physical likenesses which are behind much of the public statuary and sculpted busts today. They are technically sculpture but not art. Paradoxically as they become visually as realistic as they can be,  this only seems to reduce their vitality and inner intensity.

My own clay heads are fired as terracottas, rather than immediately used to take a cast from and then discarded. The shrinkage involved in the kiln process I find an advantage as it seems to increase the intensity of the forms, but portrait sculptors might see negatively as further deviation from a requirement to be life-size.

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