Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), pioneer of modernism and distinguished portrait sculptor, made many portraits of children throughout his career. This exhibition brought together a key selection of Epstein’s remarkable and moving bronzes and drawings of babies and children, including of members of his own family, which demonstrate his love of children as a subject matter. It presented an often-overlooked area of Epstein’s work: better-known pieces such as Rock Drill (1915), and his controversial public commissions, have overshadowed his more conventional portraits. Yet he made his first sculptures of babies as a young man in Paris between 1902 and 1904, and became even more compelled by the subject upon becoming a father in 1918.
Epstein’s life in Bloomsbury between 1914 and 1927 provided a bohemian backdrop for his work. He worked out of a variety of studios in the area and, from 1916, lived in a house overlooking the Foundling Hospital – nearby his beloved British Museum, a source of inspiration throughout his life in London.
During this period Epstein had a number of extra-marital affairs, three of which produced his five children. His first daughter, Peggy Jean, was born following an affair with Meum Stewart and his last child, Jackie, from an affair with Isabel Nicholas, later Francis Bacon’s muse. His first wife, Margaret Epstein, was unable to have children, and endured these indiscretions until her death in 1947, having brought up the eldest and youngest of the children herself. Epstein’s relationship with Kathleen Garman, however – who would eventually become Lady Epstein – is thought to have been too much of a threat to Mrs Epstein, as in 1922 she is alleged to have shot Kathleen in the shoulder with a pearl-handled pistol.
Beyond the complexities of his domestic life, there is no doubt that as an artist Epstein loved children. He continued to make bronzes after moving from Bloomsbury to Kensington, working from the children of his contemporaries, which included James Mason and Paul Robeson. Portraits of his own children, those of his grandchildren – including Anne and Annabel Freud, children of his daughter Kitty Epstein and Lucien Freud – and many of his commissioned works, demonstrate how this large, bear-like man was entranced by the challenge of his small subjects.
“To work from a child the sculptor has to have endless patience. He must wait and observe, and observe and wait. The small forms, so seemingly simple, are in reality so subtle, and the hunting of the form is an occupation that is at once tantalizing and fascinating”
Curated by Gill Hedley, this exhibition followed a chronological route through Epstein’s life in Bloomsbury with bronzes, drawings and archive photographs of the artist, his children and their mothers, with the Foundling Hospital as an ever-present feature of the landscape of his life in the area.
delightful...brings us into contact with the private, domestic side of Epstein's life and art in a way that a larger show could not do