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Lot 192: Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)

20th Century British & Irish Art

by Christie's

November 17, 2011

London, United Kingdom

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Description: Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)
Sir Winston Churchill
signed 'Epstein' (on the back of the neck)
bronze with a green and brown patina
12 in. (30.5 cm.) high, excluding base
Conceived in 1946.

Notes: Property from the Epstein-Evans Collection


The Epstein-Evans Collection was formed essentially over a period of thirty years. Dr Martin Evans, the sculptor's nephew, recalls how Epstein returned to his native land in 1947, after a hiatus of twenty years:

'The Holland-American liner, Rotterdam, sailed into New York harbor in a dense fog. It hit a fishing shack.' The New York Times noted this fact. It added, 'aboard the liner, due to dock in Hoboken tomorrow, is the noted New York born sculptor Jacob Epstein'. I hasten to add that nobody was injured in the incident.

We borrowed a family car and took the Hoboken ferry to New Jersey. Driving to the pier we arrived just in time to see the passengers disembarking down a long wooden gangplank. There, ambling down in his own characteristic gait, was our quarry. Jacob bore an uncanny resemblance to my dad. Indeed all seven siblings of that generation, both male and female, shared a physiognomy and mannerisms that were identifable. Only Jacob's speech pattern was unique. It was an amalgam of his lower East-side New York accent and the King's English of London's cultural elite.

Always gallant and never at a loss for words, Jacob greeted his younger brother, Irving, 'Thank God you're here. I would have had to sleep in Central park tonight.' Actually he had a hotel room booked. That night Jacob put his shoes outside the door to be polished only to realize by the morning that they had been swiped. So with that my dad returned, with his older brother in tow, to live with us. Our home became his permanent address in America for all subsequent visits. We volunteered to become Epstein's American agent. With merchant genes, I took responsibility for selling the works. A marvellous relationship was established with Jacob and thus an outstanding collection of his work acquired.

Epstein's greatest portraits often resulted from his interaction with very talented sitters. He doted on his children and grandchildren, also producing memorable portraits. A third category that deserves mention were the beautiful, intriguing and always intelligent women.

Sir Winston Churchill is a prime example of this first category. In the late forties and the fifties the two men lived opposite each other at 17 and 18 Hyde Park Gate. On a visit with Jacob in the early fifties when I questioned Churchill's artistic ability Jacob cut me short saying, 'Martin, that man is a good artist, in fact he does not know how to do anything badly.'

Epstein was a lover of music. He had a profound respect for musicians, composers and conductors, counting some as his closest friends. Ralph Vaughan Williams was his closest and most admired sitter. Indeed Williams was known to say 'There are two things that can get me to London - an opening of an Epstein exhibit and the premier of a musical piece of my own'. Unfortunately I was never able to acquire the William's portrait but I found the portrait of Yehudi Menuhin a notable stand-in. Menuhin records the sitting in his autobiography, Unfinished Journey:

'Like his sculptures, he seems as if God had transformed him with a few grand strokes, not attending to too much detail. Everything about him had size, his presence, his vision, his emotions, to say nothing of his conversational resources, whose copiousness flooded irresistibly over the sitter, battering him into submissive stillness.'

The portrait of Paul Robeson was sculpted in 1927 on Jacob's first visit back to his native New York. During the sittings Robeson sang lullabies to Jacob's daughter Peggy Jean. The portrait of the singer resulted in a long-term friendship between the two men. Several years later in 1931 Epstein did a delightful head of the singer's son, Paul Robeson Jr.

The busts of Dolores and Sunita perfectly represent the third category of Epstein portraiture, the alluring woman. Jacob declared with his Third Portrait of Dolores that he had finally captured the model, 'tragic and magnificent'. In the later bust, Third Portrait of Sunita, Jacob worked from the Indian model who would come to be considered his most famous. Over the course of a couple of years he would do hundreds of drawings of Sunita including numerous drawings of her with her sister Anita, and son Enver, as well as five portraits including the full length seated depiction of her as Madonna in Jacob's Madonna and Child.

Epstein's maquettes were a very important aspect of his artistic legacy. Created possibly at first to allay the fears of those who commissioned major works they now stand alone as powerful works of art. The Christ in Majesty maquette for Llandaff Cathedral's aluminium definitive work is actually cast in lead. It met the sponsors expectations and proudly graces the restored National Cathedral of Wales in Cardiff. The original plaster for the great work was later gilded and presented to the Riverside Church in New York, the home of Jacob's Madonna and Child.

Kitty Garman, one of Jacob's three daughters, met all three criteria for a perfect sitter. Jacob's portrait of Kitty captures a wide-eyed impetuous young woman who would soon be sitting for her lover and first husband Lucian Freud. Kitty was the inspiration for many of Freud's early portrait's including, Girl in a Dark Jacket, Girl with a Fig Leaf, Ill in Paris, and Girl with Leaves. I first met Kitty at a most difficult time in her life. Even a recent divorce from Freud could not quell her great spirit.

In 1987 when we next met she had long since been married to Wynne Godley, a professor of economics at Cambridge University. Epstein's St Michael Slaying the Devil on the façade of the new Coventry Cathedral, incorporates Godley's head as that of St Michael. We met Kitty and Wynne at the Leeds City Centre Hotel. We had come up to Leeds from London to attend the 1987 retrospective exhibition of Jacob's work. In his will, Henry Moore requested that after his death an Epstein retrospective be held at the Henry Moore Centre for Study of Sculpture at Leeds City Art Galleries. This show was to honour his friend Jacob Epstein, one of his earliest benefactors and collectors of his work. What a magnificent and magnanimous gesture this was. Kitty Godley opened the festivities with a gracious speech attended by donors to the exhibition, dignitaries in government and the art world, and family. This event completed a circle of relationships between Epstein and Moore, which is most profound. It anchors the two men in their positions as masters of 20th century British sculpture.

Martin J. Evans, private correspondence, 2011.
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.

Provenance: The artist, and by descent.

Literature: E. Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein, Oxford, 1986, p. 198, no. 371, another cast illustrated.

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