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Deirdre, by Jacob Epstein


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About the artwork

Most of Epstein’s portraits of men were commissions such as Sir Winston Churchill and Ralph Vaughan Williams; far more of his female sitters were not, including 'Deirdre'. Not very much is know about Deirdre as a person. She was the Epstein family’s cook and housekeeper from 1939 until 1942, when she followed her new husband to Australia.

This is the sculptor’s third portrait of Deirdre, in the first she is unusually cut off mid-torso and is resting her arms on her elbows. His second portrait stops just above her elbows. In the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s sculpture Epstein just shows her head and the top of her shoulders. It is as if he has stripped away her upper body to concentrate on her head alone. Renaissance sculptors such as Donatello would have inspired Epstein, with his emphasis on the emotions and psychological aspects of the subject.

Deirdre’s large eyes, heavy eyelids and wide cheekbones and mouth are typical of Epstein’s work in the 1940s. He was interested in the shape of the head as well as depiction of character and emotion. His expressive use of the clay was once called his ‘mud-pie’ finish by one critic, and is indebted to the work of Rodin. Epstein said that “the physical side of sculpture is a very important factor that is often overlooked”.

Unlike the smooth surfaces of the sculpture of his predecessors, he shows the physical element of sculpture, and it is particularly evident in his treatments of portraits such as 'Deirdre', where the modelling can be clearly seen on her shoulders. Epstein modelled Deirdre’s portrait in clay in 1942 not long before she left his household. Eight bronze casts were made and the Lady Lever Art Gallery has the first. Cork Art Gallery and Winnipeg Art Gallery also have casts.

Jacob Epstein was born in New York in 1880 to Polish-born parents. His father was a successful tailor and property investor. Jacob was a sickly child and spent much of his time reading and drawing. After school he studied at the Art Students’ League until 1902. Epstein decided he wanted to be a sculptor while renting a cabin on a lake with fellow artist Bernard Gussow. The friends had been forced to cut ice for money during the winter and Epstein liked the physicality of the work. He later attended evening classes in clay modelling while working at a bronze foundry.

Epstein travelled to Paris to study life modelling and carving in 1902 with money earned from illustrations for the book ‘The Spirit of The Ghetto’. He was captivated by the ancient and primitive sculpture that he saw in the Parisian museums, and visited the great contemporary sculptor Auguste Rodin. Encouraged by his new wife Peggy, Epstein moved to London in 1905 where his drawings came to the attention of the writer George Bernard Shaw. Epstein’s father did not approve of his career, and the young sculptor survived on the income from a few portrait commissions from friends, and some subsidies from the painter William Rothenstein.

A commission for eighteen figures for the exterior of the new British Medical Association building was Epstein’s big break. However, his realistic style offended some people who thought the figures were indecent in comparison to the classical treatment of the nude that predominated. Fellow artists rallied round to defend the work during demands for the figures’ removal. This was the first in a series of controversies surrounding the sculptor.

By 1912 Epstein had begun to create sculpture by carving directly into the stone, as well creating portrait busts in the more traditional form of clay modelling. He was introduced to African and Oceanic art by the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani which had a profound effect on his art. He was moving in the circles of the Vorticists and Cubists led by Wyndham Lewis. Epstein’s style became very formal for a short period. His 'Rock Drill', a robotic figure with a foetus inside its rib cage in white plaster perched on a real drill, demonstrates his concerns about machines and the future of the human race. Again, his innovation was too much for his critics who could not accept the drill as part of an object of art, nor its harsh angles. Epstein’s 'W.H. Hudson Memorial (Rima)' in Hyde Park received a similar reception, though its vitality went on to influence the next generation of sculptors.

Epstein’s 1939 'Adam' is monumental as a figure of masculine sexual energy. He challenged himself with successfully creating dynamism in such a narrow piece of alabaster. Even so, it was reduced to pornography when it was purchased and then displayed amongst shrunken heads and the like at a Blackpool funfair where people paid to stare at the grotesque. It was not until after the war that Epstein began to receive the recognition that he deserved, with membership of the Royal Society of British Sculptors over forty years after he had first been rejected. He was knighted in 1954, at the time of his commission for the exterior of Lewis’s store in Liverpool.

In the face of constant criticism, Epstein continued to produce and sometimes exhibit large carved figure pieces throughout his career. Nevertheless, it was in the more traditional bronze portrait that he made his money. Despite the competition from faster, cheaper portrait painters, the number of commissions that he received kept increasing and he became the most famous and controversial sculptor of his time. Epstein was skilled at capturing the character of his sitters, whilst also pursuing his own exploration of emotions through the clay. The treatment of the surface of his portraits varies according to the individual, though they are characterised by their lively surfaces, sometimes deeply pitted.