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

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