t’s a hundred years since Jacob Epstein set to work on ‘Rock Drill’, the startling, cyborg icon of Vorticism that sealed his reputation as a founding father of modern British sculpture (you can see a version of it at Tate Britain). Arriving at this small display on a landing at the National Portrait Gallery, you may find yourself wondering if this might be some other Jacob Epstein, found lurking in the footnotes of art history.
What’s intriguing about this American-born, Paris-educated artist is that he was a sculptor of two distinct halves. Courting controversy, especially with public works like the pendulous nudes he carved for the British Medical Association building on the Strand (mutilated in the name of public safety yet still visible on what is now Zimbabwe House), but following an intense if essentially conservative path for smaller works like these portrait busts.
It’s the expressive, Auguste Rodin-style modelling that characterises this ‘who’s who’ of twentieth-century artists, writers and politicians, including Augustus John, TS Eliot and Ramsay MacDonald. Epstein was clearly after intense psychological insight rather than mere likeness and attains it in a portrait of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – as pensive a subject as you’re likely to see in art – made soon after the assassination of Gandhi in 1948. The results aren’t always so successful: the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams just looks fed up.
Photographs show the great and the good in Epstein’s studio. But it’s the gossipy gallery texts that really bring this gathering to life. ‘That spiv’ was how Epstein referred to his son-in-law, Lucian Freud. Meanwhile, we learn that Charlotte Payne-Townshend hated Epstein’s portrait of her husband, George Bernard Shaw, so much that she refused to have it in the house.