Creating on a grand scale
EPSTEIN: ARTIST AGAINST THE ESTABLISHMENT by Stephen Gardiner Michael Joseph, £20, pp. 532 Mr Gardiner's 532-page biography gives the fullest account yet to appear of Epstein's life and work. There is much welcome new material — letters of Epstein and his family, as well as the recording of episodes which Lady Epstein might not have wished to see published in her life- time. For a complete catalogue of the work
and for splendour of layout and illustration the student must, however, turn to Evelyn Silber's The Sculpture of Epstein (Phaidon, 1986). Mr Gardiner's plates are not quite worthy of his text; and I question the wisdom of placing family snapshots, however delightful, next to photographs of a masterpiece. A lively portrait of Epstein's genial face beams from the front of the jacket, but the best photograph is on the back of the jacket — 'Lazarus' in New College Chapel — one of many taken for me by the late Hans Wild in 1961.
The persecution Epstein suffered throughout most of his career and his private sorrows make him appear as a trag- ic hero. But the rabble did not hound him into exile or drive him to desperation. He went on working. Few men worked harder. I never knew Epstein — though I once shook him by the hand: but in 1960, shortly after his death, I met his widow at a lunch Party and we became friends. Perhaps I cheered her up. Because she liked some- thing of mine that was published that year she asked me to write a book about her husband. I protested, 'I'm not an art critic andI can't write the jargon.' That's why I m asking you,' she said. 'Jacob disliked art critics.' So we set about making a fat book illustrating nearly all the sculptor's work, With notes on how each portrait or monu- mental figure came to be made, and as Much biographical material as she cared to give me or that could be culled from other sources. I thought that at least I was in a position to rescue a few facts from oblivion. Indeed they were of service to Evelyn Silber when she embarked on more extensive research in the 1980s.
Lord Harewood was planning his first Edinburgh Festival for 1961. I asked him, Why don't you let me arrange a big Epstein exhibition?' After consultation with his committee, he told me to go ahead; and he found a perfect site, the Waverley Market, a glass and cast-iron structure the size of a football ground, which I had previously assumed to be part ,°I. the station. I aimed at showing all the nest portraits and as many of the big works as possible. Of course we could not move Oscar Wilde's tomb from Paris or 'Day' ...rid 'Night' from the Underground Headquarters Building in Westminster, or
`Rima' from Hyde Park or the 'Madonna and Child' from the convent wall in Hanover Square, but these and other immovable monuments would be represented by photographs. The Tate Gallery agreed to lend 'The Rock Drill' and 'The Visitation', New College deprived its antechapel of 'Lazarus', and the gilt bronze 'Lucifer' with his upstretched wings was extracted with difficulty from a base- ment in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Even the immense monolith 'Ecce Homo', Epstein's most massive (11 feet) and perhaps greatest carving, which, after being exhibited in Battersea Park, had been languishing in a gardener's shed, would travel north.
I was distressed to learn that Louis Tussaud's waxwork show, which owned 'Consummatum Est', 'Genesis', 'Adam' and `Jacob and the Angel', and displayed them to the curious in a low-ceilinged basement at Blackpool, would not lend. They might, however, sell. I said to Lord Harewood, `Why don't you buy them? You might want to keep one or more and sell others later.' He is a man of quick decisions. He agreed at once.
Epstein had never seen more than one of his big imaginative works exhibited under a `Is it me, or are the Police getting older?' roof at one time. We had a dozen or more in Edinburgh and we put the plaster cast of Coventry's `St Michael and the Devil' on the roof. I regarded this exhibition as the long-suffering sculptor's apotheosis and was proud to have been given the privilege of planning it. There were queues down Princes Street. If some people came to jeer, they stayed to wonder. Our 'run' was extended by a week after the three-week festival. More than twice as many people came to the Epstein exhibition as hati visit- ed any exhibition during the festival's' 15 years — 125,000. One reason why Stephen Gardiner's book is exhausting as well as exhaustive is that he meticulously records the controver- sies aroused by almost every carving from the 'Strand statues' on the British Medical Association building in 1908 up to 'Lazarus' in 1948.
Catholic priests denounced them, fascists and anti-Semites scribbled on them, jour- nalists yapped, the man in the street expressed his disgust, even the highbrows were cool — although there were always a few passionate enthusiasts such as T. W. Earp — and the sculptor's visions did not fit in with Roger Fry's theory of 'signifi- cant form'. So Oscar Wilde's winged angel was castrated; `Rima' was five times daubed; and after 30 years the Strand statues were mutilated — I traced a head to Bulawayo in Rhodesia and borrowed it for Edinburgh. These attacks, and newspaper controversies, are scrupulously recorded by Stephen Gardiner; and perhaps it is right that we should have all the evidence to keep our indignation alive.
I concur with Mr Gardiner in admiring the high relief of dancing `Rima' and her birds on the Hudson Memorial, which Members of Parliament and the President of the Royal Academy wished to banish from the Park; I like his descriptions of 'Adam' and 'Jacob and the Angel' and of `unearthly' Lazarus awaking from death.
Epstein's first wife, Scottish Margaret Dunlop, was more of a housekeeper, watchdog and business manager than a spouse. She encouraged the exotic models to move into the house, and when Epstein's first child, Peggy-Jean, was born to ope of them, Meum, in 1918 she brought her up as her own. But when Epstein met the beautiful, intelligent and musical Kathleen Garman in 1921, it was on both sides true love at first sight. Mrs Epstein, realising this, referred to Kathleen as 'that witch', invited her to the house and shot her in the shoulder. Epstein told Kathleen he must stand by Margaret, and there was no prose- cution. (This Kathleen never told me, but it
had been reported in the newspapers at the time.) In the 1920s Kathleen bore the sculptor a son and two daughters, Theo, Kitty and Esther. When the Epsteins moved to Hyde Park Gate, Kathleen had a house at 272 King's Road, and Jacob visited her one or two evenings a week. Their love continued unabated, as his letters quoted here bear witness. It was, therefore, a fearful blow when she read in a newspaper in 1934 that recent drawings of a boy were of Epstein's son Jackie. The mother was glamorous Isabel (later the wife of Constant Lambert).
Kathleen stood there, staring down, saying again, 'He's just had another child.'
Mrs Epstein, in her sixties and dropsical. had strapped a cushion under her skirt to simulate pregnancy; and in a later letter to Epstein's great friend Matthew Smith, she referred to 'the baby son I had in Sept 1934'.
Hurtling ahead to conclude the catalogue of Jacob's and Kathleen's domes- tic dramas — so sensitively recorded by Mr Gardiner, who obviously adored Kathleen's humour, charm and courage in adversity I summarise. In March 1947 Margaret Epstein died. A year later Kathleen moved into Hyde Park Gate. Her son Theo, an original painter, was mentally unstable. (Mr Gardiner records that he was sent to a hospital near Northampton, but not that he was given electrical shock treatment, as I had heard.) Epstein received a degree from Oxford, but when in February 1954 he went to be knighted at Buckingham Palace, he was accompanied by Esther, not Kathleen, for Theo had died under incredible circum- stances shortly before.
Esther committed suicide within a year. Kitty, who had been married to Lucian Freud, married Wynne Godley, whose features were bestowed on the Coventry St Michael'. In June 1955 Epstein married Kathleen. He died in 1959.
The sculptor had made many portraits of his children, his sons-in-law and his grand- children. He thought his first 'Portrait of Esther' was something he could not have done better. And so does Stephen Gardiner. And so do I. He compares it with the haunting head of Queen Nefertiti. And so did I. (I also mentioned the 'Mona Lisa'.) But there are so many heads one would like to name and praise. Gardiner writes well about the very different portraits of flaunting Isabel, of 'craggy' Vaughan Williams, and 'the most exquisite classical' head of Anne Tree, which are three he particularly likes. And so do I.
Recently there was talk on television of HunHenrY Moore as the greatest British sculptor of our time. I cannot agree. Lazarus' is safely back in New College; Ecce Homo' is in Coventry Cathedral; Jacob and the Angel' is on loan from Granada Ltd to Liverpool University, and Adam' is in the splendid entrance hall of Harewood House.