Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

A Vorticist frog

I’m charmed by a little item that’s popped up in Raquel Gilboa’s 2009 study of Jacob Epstein that I don’t remember seeing before – a wonderful carving in red sandstone of an abstracted frog, about 20 by 29 cm, credited only to a “private collection”, and speculatively dated to 1913-14. Gilboa attributes this more probably to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, on the grounds that both subject and material fit Gaudier better, and that none of the Epstein family recalled seeing it lying around. I suppose it’s not entirely incompatible with Epstein’s mating doves of that era, but that’s the only possible point of connection, and his work of the period is more concerned with weighty symbolisms of procreation than with pure reconfigurations of form such as this.

frog
On the other hand, the “Chenil Blue Book” sketchbook of Gaudier’s at the Tate, dated to 1913-14, does contain a little sketch of a frog seen from above. Not that this clinches it, but the Chenil (a great online browse, by the way) has other drawings linked to a number of small sculptures by Gaudier, including two of fish, though his little animal pieces are in bronze, not stone like the frog. Quite a few doodles in the sketchbook seem, to my uneducated eye, to be drawn from Aztec or Mayan motifs, and the little frog maybe has something of this look. So, on balance, Gaudier it is – perhaps …

conway
When did this little frog surface to hop into the Epstein oeuvre? Both Gilboa and the Courtauld site reference it to the 1987 Epstein show at Leeds and Whitechapel, so I’m guessing that that was its emergence in modern times. Where was it before then?

Anyway, it’s a beautiful thing. Vehicular, almost presciently tank-like in fact, eyelids closed, fingertips touching, mouth an impassive straight line, it sits as if in deep meditation of its own frogliness. Extraordinary how Gaudier (if it was he) could stare at the block and see this form trapped within it, reducible. There are some striated chisel marks behind the eyes, while the hump at the rear seems to have been left a bit roughly shaped, so one wonders if it’s actually finished, not that it matters. If this is Gaudier’s, it is a clear point on the trajectory of his project to synthesise the natural and the mechanical, the project truncated by his early death in war. (But before the appearance of tanks.)

(Incidentally, I can’t see any photo credit in Gilboa’s book for the image used there; a colour version of the same photo turns up in flickriver, credited to a Ras Marley of Philadelphia, but it’s clear that not all photos in his name are originals, so I’m assuming that’s lifted from elsewhere. I show it here, up above. If anyone objects, by all means shout.)

Artificial melancholy in Sutton Coldfield

My wife says it’s a shame that I’m reduced to blogging about the contents of garden centres (see last post), and she probably has a point. But while I’m still in the mood, here’s a quick tour around select bits of Hall’s of Sutton Coldfield, a surprisingly off kilter venue nestling innocently just outside Birmingham, whose displays of massed cultural fossils achieve fresh and unerring incongruity overload, reuniting Nature with ruin and artificial melancholy in a tradition extending back to the eighteenth century. In connection with which, I was delighted to find above the toilet doors a print of Millais’s Cherry Ripe, a kitsch icon and descendant of Joshua Reynolds’s Penelope Boothby as already discussed in this post. Other highlights include a “Japanese Water Garden” (with both piped water and piped pseudo-oriental music), a vast stock of worryingly large plastic animals and a gargantuan dinosaur on a pallet on the roof. (Oh yes, and look carefully and you’ll see that the tree man, behind the frog and duck fountains, houses a surveillance camera.)

A previous foray here into contemporary kitsch, my post on the Trafford Centre in Manchester, left one commenter feeling “a bit queasy”. This is all very much miniaturised in comparison with that postmodern Xanadu, but I hope these images may have just a little of the same effect. (Click thumbnails for slides and click below slides for mega enlargements. )

Aphrodites among the roses

A bit haltingly, I’m working through Raquel Gilboa’s ... And there was Sculpture, the first volume of her 2009 Jacob Epstein study, covering his career up to 1930. It’s good. Her revealing emphasis on Epstein’s Jewishness, largely ignored by others, provides valuable new understandings. But I was perplexed for a while by the strange familiarity of the great cover photo of Epstein bashing away at the beginnings of Maternity, finished in 1912. Of course! Its echo is in Tony Hancock’s magnum (very magnum) opus Aphrodite at the Waterhole, from his justly celebrated 1961 film The Rebel, about which there is much online, though no excerpts on YouTube, sadly, thanks to copyright issues. Yes, the primal memory of direct carving runs deep.


At a bit of a tangent to this, but still in the realm of chunky stone Epsteinian Aphrodites, a visit to David Austin Roses at Albrighton near Wolverhampton has provided a fresh acquaintance with the sculptures of the late Pat Austin, a talented carver, whose stone pieces nicely punctuate the super-abundant floriferousness of the rose gardens. I’m never quite sure about garden statuary, most of which seems to have a contextual bias towards naffness, but Pat Austin’s carved sculptures are really rather fine, in a retro-symbolist, late British neo-romantic sort of way, and it’s quite a surprise to come across them in a garden centre, albeit a very fabulous garden centre.

pat austin

Pat Austin

Her chunky lion is predictably popular with visitors, but I far prefer the stately stone maidens and the vaguely Palmerish panels. These garden pieces are catalogued on the PMSA site, but apart from a carved frieze outside Albrighton Health Centre, I’m not aware of any more of her work on public view.  Anyway, here’s a few snaps of the sculptures, by way of a nod to a remarkable but little known woman with chisel. (Click on thumbnails for slideshow / enlargements.)

Graphic dreams of Utopia

red virginAs a quick post, here’s a link to my review of Mary and Bryan Talbot’s recently published graphic novel on the life of Louise Michel, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia. Review now up on the Kate Sharpley Library site, with thanks to John at KSL. It occurs to me that utopianism is a form of displaced nostalgia. And that nationalism is a form of displaced utopianism. And that nostalgia … Anyway …

No disrespect to Louise Michel in any of this – a remarkably courageous and principled woman. It’s graphic novels that I find a little worrying these days.

The Improdigal Father

This blogs needs a re-injection of energy. Sorry. Meanwhile, Happy Father’s Day for yesterday! Far be it from me to criticise Jesus’s skills as a creator of parables, but don’t you sometimes feel that the figure of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son is rather too blank, too blameless? Isn’t self reproach a part of the suffering of God the Father? Shouldn’t the whole thing be more symmetrical? So here’s a little vision that came to me yesterday during Communion. With a nice pic by Max Beckmann.

The Improdigal Father

After the younger son had left for a distant country, there to squander his wealth, the presence of his remaining brother proved a diminishing comfort to the father, who entered a dark period of prolonged remorse and self-examination. News of the famine in his son’s adopted country and of the young man’s impoverished and pitiful condition only deepened the old man’s guilt, while the severely dutiful character of the older son became less a compensation than an irritant.

Max Beckmann, The Prodigal Son

Max Beckmann, The Prodigal Son

“It’s all very well you slaving out here in the fields all day,”  commented his father, “but your brother is starving, somewhere hundreds of miles away, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. And you working all hours and calculating the profits isn’t going to help. Your brother’s going to die and you’re in complete denial.”

“Well someone’s got to take care of business,” said the son. “And you’re just sitting around moping all day and beating yourself up about it. What good does that do?”

His father didn’t answer.

“And maybe,” his son continued, “he wouldn’t have left in the first place if you hadn’t been so hard on him, banging on all the time about responsibility and aspiration. You never played with us when we were little, you know. We didn’t exactly have a fun childhood.”

“I know, I know” mumbled the father. “But then, your grandfather was very distant with me when I was small. I never had much of an example to follow.”

But his son wasn’t listening. “And then,” he continued, “after all those years of repression, to go and give him his half of the estate, all in one go. You might have known what would happen. Total disaster! He simply couldn’t handle it, but that wasn’t his fault.”

“I know, I know. But I was trying to do the right thing. I wanted to make it up to him for being so hard on him. But I just made everything worse.”

Then news came that his lost son had been spotted, a long way down the road, walking back home. The old man rushed out of the house, tears staining his face, and ran to find him. When he met him he threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“I’m so sorry,” he wept. “It’s all my fault. I have sinned against heaven and against you. I’ve been a useless dad; in fact I’m no longer worthy to be called your father. I’ve been so depressed and guilty about it. A day hasn’t gone past when I haven’t reproached myself for everything that’s happened. I’ve lain awake every night thinking about your situation, worrying about the future. And your brother hasn’t helped. He’s grown so cold and hard, like me. All he thinks about is his work. I only wanted the best for you both. Where did I go wrong?”

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” said the young man. “You don’t have to feel bad about it any more. I’m home now and things will be better, you’ll see. We’ve both learned a valuable lesson. I’ll tell you what – have you still got a fattened calf left? Why don’t we go home and kill it and have a feast to celebrate? That’ll cheer you up a bit.”

When the older brother found out what was happening, he became angry and resentful. But his younger brother said to him, “Celebrate with us and be glad. This father of ours was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.”

Mercurial optimism in Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton, excuse me for saying so, seems like a city of lost souls these days, and to mark this, much of Wolverhampton Gallery is under builders’ sheets at the moment. Of what was on show today, I couldn’t manage long in David Ward’s desperately quietist (yawn) exhibition “In a Landscape”, but I did enjoy the room of Big Ceramics, though it served to remind me that the Wolverhampton school where I worked till a couple of years ago celebrated my departure by ripping out our ceramics kilns and the whole clay area in order to create a reception desk. Ceramics being too low a material, too grubby on the fingers, to be “innovative” enough for the Design Technology suits anxious to keep Art within limits they could handle.

mercury
Wolverhampton has a lost history of voluminous sculpting, as exemplified by Robert J Emerson’s Mercury frieze on the Express & Star building, which hailed me in passing, camera in hand, on my way back to the bus station. This cracking piece of Blakean muscular deco was done in 1934 for the opening of the newspaper’s new premises. Emerson was close to the editor, and had even had a studio on the site. According to one source, a local doctor’s son was the model (blimey, steady on ladies), and the piece is not carved but actually cast in reconstituted “Vinculum” stone. Now there’s an innovative technology for you.

The beckoning forefinger risks misinterpretation these days, and I feel that Emerson might have compensated for the foreshortened view from street level by stretching the legs, but otherwise it all works pretty well. He managed to avoid Epstein-type controversy by inserting a teeny fig leaf, and as far as I know, no fundamentalist Christians have yet objected to his inclusion of a pentagram.

Though the Express & Star, I have to say, is now well beyond its years of greatness and a poor excuse for a newspaper.

While sat in the Gallery café I spent a while making notes towards a review of Mary and Bryan Talbot’s new graphic novel on Louise Michel, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia. The problem terms here, of course, are “vision” and “utopia”. If we wished to disable radicalism one sure means would be to invest it in a utopian vision, and to confine that vision in the cultural game reserve of comic books. Is Emerson’s god of communications a utopian image? For sure, it’s brazenly optimistic, and as historical utopias of both left and right are reduced to a residue of steampunk gameplay, such public optimism looks rather out of kilter in today’s Wolverhampton.

The darker side of Sonny

Theodore Garman at work

Theodore Garman at work

The New Art Gallery at Walsall is currently showing off its new Auerbach – a version of To the Studios from 1983, once owned by Lucien Freud, and now at Walsall via the Accepted in Lieu tax scheme. And here it is. In my humble opinion it’s not quite his best – a bit muddy and muddled in the middle – but still worth showing off, of course.

What Walsall rarely shows off are two fine Auerbach-ish works they already have by a less known painter on whom they hold a virtual monopoly – Jacob Epstein’s son Theodore Garman. Find him on the Art UK site and 23 paintings come up, all but one at Walsall.

'The Blue Girl' 1948

‘The Blue Girl’ 1948

Theo Garman, born in 1924, was Epstein’s son by his partner Kathleen Garman, though Epstein never publicly acknowledged the relationship. Due to his cheerful childhood disposition he was known as “Sonny”, but in his adult years he suffered grievously from depression, and was given a disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia. Later, as his instability deepened, he required considerable care from his mother Kathleen. As a painter he moved in an artistic environment, but was essentially a self-taught loner, admiring Matisse and Matthew Smith but dismissive of “the Sutherland-Piper-Moore claptrap”.

Exhibitions at the Redfern in 1950 and 1952 were applauded, Matthew Smith expressing “wonder, admiration, and even astonishment”; Wyndham Lewis, always an acute critic in The Listener, was more wisely measured, finding himself “overwhelmed by a rancid vegetation, tropically gigantic,” but judging nevertheless that Garman’s painterly vitality “assures this artist of a high place among his contemporaries.”

GrayThere’s no denying that the so-so landscapes and still lives of Garman’s earlier years had toughened up admirably by the late ‘forties, and his Matissean looseness had become more of a freedom than a weakness. Jennifer Gray, whose M Phil thesis on Garman sits unpublished in Walsall’s archives, but who authored the 2004 booklet on him, speculates that “his illness, far from inhibiting his creativity, may have enhanced it, allowing him to be liberated and able to explore new ideas and techniques.” Maybe so, though one wishes to avoid slipping into the suffering genius narrative here.

The two late paintings that best exemplify this late development are The Old Forge Chelsea I and II, produced in 1953, shortly before Garman’s tragic and early death. In these his deepening impasto is matched with tangled, angular, linear shapes and rich, dark, dense colours, reminiscent of Auerbach and Leon Kossoff and of their teacher David Bomberg. Auerbach and Kossoff were still students in 1953, and I’m not aware of any direct connections here, but it certainly looks as if Garman had had second thoughts about some aspects of modernist style.

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

These two paintings are in the care of Walsall but are part of the Beth Lipkin collection, rather than the Garman Ryan, and are infrequently shown. A pity. (Click on images to enlarge.)

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

In January 1954 Garman, in something of a disturbed state, borrowed a small statue for a still life from Chelsea School of Art and was promptly accused of stealing it. The police were called. Stephen Gardiner’s 1992 biography of Epstein gives a bare but careful account of what happened next: Kathleen, to prevent his arrest, arranged for his hospital admission, but when the ambulance arrived Theodore, thinking himself kidnapped, was overwhelmed by panic and died of a heart attack while struggling with the male nurses after injections of sedative. He was 29 years old. Despite an anonymous letter to the police complaining of “the barbarous manner in which he was virtually hounded to death” the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of death from natural causes. Later the same year Theo’s sister Esther committed suicide.

In an appendix to her rather gushy 2004 boho-romp The Rare and the Beautiful. The Lives of the Garmans, Cressida Connolly rakes over the circumstances and their associated rumours, but in the process discovers precious little.

It’s too easy to suggest that the dark angularity of these paintings is somehow expressive of Garman’s suffering or reflects the appalling tragedy that overtook the family. But the two works do seem to indicate a deepened and more complex sensibility, and may suggest something of what Garman might have gone on to achieve and sustain if he had lived. Today he is largely forgotten, his “high place among his contemporaries” sadly unassured.

The scandalous portrait of footman Smith

My recent visit to the pompous cold and gloom of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk was relieved only by (a) a chat with an elderly gentleman guide who recalled being introduced by Richard Burton to Francis Bacon at the Colony Room during a student drinking binge, and (b) the acquisition for a song at the National Trust second hand bookshop of Michael Holroyd’s 1975 biography of Augustus John.

It’s become the norm to compare the boho-machismo of Augustus unfavourably with the demure painterliness of his long eclipsed sister Gwen. And certainly his work is problematic, veering uncomfortably between genius and the risible. Many of the commissioned portraits come in, rightly, for their share of stick, but one of the earliest, to my mind, is a clear piece of evidence (among many others) for John’s greatness: it is his 1909 civic monster, Portrait of His Honour H C Dowdall KC as Lord Mayor of Liverpool. Though in his biography Holroyd too often employs literary twiddles to disguise a lack of hard fact, he does a good job of chronicling the troubled history of this painting.

Lord Mayor
The commission by Liverpool city council brought the relatively unknown John a hundred guineas. The subject and recipient of the portrait, the retiring Lord Mayor, Harold Chaloner Dowdall, was a friend of John’s (despite being a Conservative), and made the choice of artist himself. John insisted on the largest available canvas, and started with the two vertical edges of the triangular composition, the wand and sword. For a fortnight John worked “like a steam engine,” and in a moment of inspiration inserted the Mayor’s footman, a Mr Smith, to whom the massive sword was now allotted. (Smith’s surname alone is ever used in the account, oddly.)

As completion became increasingly problematic John found himself anxious to escape the claustrophobic ambience of officialdom: “I had but one desire: to submerge myself in crude unceremonious life.” But his nocturnal excursions to this end were deterred by Dowdall, who had been advised by the police that such outings might “prejudice in some way the dignity of his Office.” After a spell of recuperation among Welsh gypsies, John returned abruptly to finish the portrait in a single day.

The result, a masterpiece of satirical painting, caused predictable outrage when unveiled at the Walker Art Gallery, the critic of the Liverpool Daily Post suggesting that footman Smith had grounds for legal action. The Liverpool Courier found it to be a “topical allegory” with “symbolic value,” the figure of Smith personifying the abasement of the Labour movement before the Liberal government. A false rumour arose that Dowdall had hired a gang of burglars to get rid of it, only to find that they had ineptly stolen the frame and left the painting. The Walker was packed with locals keen to gawp at “the Smith portrait”.

In fact, Dowdall consistently defended the work, though he barely had house room for the seven foot canvas. In 1918 he sold it to a private collector, E P Warren (no relation of mine, as far as I know), for £1,450 and bought a house and three acres of land in Oxfordshire with the proceeds. In 1938 Warren sold it to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, where it remains, one of twenty Johns owned there. The new price was £2,400.

John Rothenstein’s 1945 study Augustus John has the painting as a black and white plate only. The Victoria’s own online colour image is oddly dark and flat, so I’ve tweaked it a bit to copy here. You have to admire the rhythms of the numerous diagonals, the lower right to upper left movement of Smith’s white stockinged legs signalling the parallel line of sight between his upturned eyes and the Lord Mayor, the object of his apparent veneration. Without Smith, the portrait would have been competently dull, and John’s gratuitously vast canvas would have been space needing to be filled; with him, the image is taut and dynamic. It remains, as the Liverpool Courier sensed, a devastating image of the oppressive class system that the painter loathed.

John’s autobiography Chiaroscuro was partly ghost-written, it seems, by none other than the ubiquitous John Davenport – see my previous post. (Though Davenport cannot be blamed for the dreadful title.) In it, John opts not to mention Dowdall, but he recalls meeting many others, from Kropotkin – “His bearded countenance radiated benignity, faith and courage” – to Aleister Crowley – “He held me by his glittering eye as any bore is apt to do” – to Charlie Chaplin – “While he was speaking on social conditions in a strain which seemed to me familiar and sympathetic, I was impelled to slap him on the back, saying, ‘Charlie, why, you’re nothing but a dear old anarchist!’ Recovering, he replied, ‘Yes, that’s about it.’”

And that – a dear old anarchist – was about it for Augustus too, bless him.

The canary that ate the cats

The best parody I can recall was one I heard in Battersea circa 1970, when a very small boy walked past me, singing to himself:

“Strangers in the night, exchanging panties …”

No further lines. That was all, and that was enough. With a wonderful economy of means – “panties” is very close in sound to “glances” – this opens up the very human realities behind the portentous lyrics of the song, as the strangers emerge from their fifteen minute fumble in the wrong underwear. Bert Kaempfert and Frank Sinatra get what they deserve, in six words.

On the other hand, anthologies of parodies seem to promise more than they deliver. Why are so many parodies written by the deservedly obscure and overly clever, seeking mistakenly to sink their targets by a piling on of baroque exaggerations? This seems true of many jabs at Eliot and Pound. (Henry Reed’s “Chard Whitlow” excepted. The Pound of the Cantos is maybe beyond parody, being, in his lurching obscurantism, already in a state of self-parody.)

canaryThe long unpublished (until 1977) comedy thriller The Death of the King’s Canary, by Dylan Thomas and John Davenport, involves the assassination of a Poet Laureate, and in the process takes a swipe at a good handful of British poets current in the late ‘forties, when it was written. (John Davenport is one of those highly interesting Fitzrovian characters who pop up around every corner, and my thanks go to Bill Bennett for pointing him out.)

Among the many prospective and parodied laureates surveyed by a bored prime minister at the novel’s opening are George Barker (“Albert Ponting, born Balham, 1910. Did Chemistry course at Polytechnic. Must read, but unsuitable”):

I, I, my own gauze phantom am,
My head frothing under my arm,
The buttocks of Venus for my huge davenport.
I orgillous turn, burn, churn,
As his rubbery bosom curds my perspiring arm –
The gust of my ghost, I mean …

W H Auden in ballad mode as a leftist Kipling (“Wyndham Nils Snowden. Very popular with the younger men. But a bit of a red.”):

Look, dead man, at this Empire, at this Eastscape of suffering,
Monocled glaucoma over India’s coral strand.
They can hear in twilight Ealing
The forts fall in Darjeeling
As the last White Hope is snuffed out in that dark-skinned No-Man’s-Land.

And of course T S Eliot (“John Lowell Atkins. Naturalized 1917. Very sound, but I don’t think quite right for the job.”):

Everything is the same. It only differs
in the subjective mind which is the same
being or not-being, born, unborn,
a wind among leaves deciduous or dead.
It does not matter where
it does not matter.
Windfall or wordfall or a linnet’s feather
in rank orchards where perpetual turns the worm.
It is not different …

After reading Atkins’s “West Abelard” the Prime Minister feels “queerly depressed” and reaches for the brandy. “That was a lugubrious poem; and the trouble was that it was true. Everything was the same. Dull, too. But it would never do to tell them so.” “West Abelard” is the more effective for being so worryingly close to the real thing.

But there is another side to Atkins; equally sharp are “the opening lines of a new light poem … another jingle for his latest dog-book,” discovered subsequently in the poet’s overcoat pocket:

Bubble and Bow-wow and Viscount Squeak,
The chow, the bullpup, and the peke,
Bound all day on a barkable lark,
Towsering round the peagreen park.

This very quick nod to Eliot’s Pekes and Pollicles, Pugs and Poms is affectionate in its clever way, but also more than enough to lay bare the soft underbelly of his modernism.

cats

‘Cats’: is it just me?

It’s just not done to dislike Old Possum, is it? No one is quite ready to be pointed at as a hater of small furry animals. I’ve owned cats (and a dog) in my day, and was fond enough of them as individuals, but I find myself very much revolted by the psychic weakness of our tyrannous English cat-and-dog culture, of which Lloyd Webber’s bizarre leg-warmer musical seems a horribly inevitable extension. Call me a snob, but the problem with Old Possum is that it’s exactly the kind of verse that J Alfred Prufrock would have approved of, between the toast and the tea.

The unmaking of ‘Rock Drill’: unmaking the myth

Image259An excellent little exhibition I should have posted about earlier has just finished – ‘Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War’ at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. A century on from the first display of Epstein’s mechanical monster, this juxtaposed the 1974 reconstruction of the full original with the surviving ‘Torso’ from the Tate, alongside related items and a bunch of context.

The show promoted a strong narrative, according to which Epstein unmade and reduced the original full figure sculpture, and chucked out the drill on which it had sat, in revulsion at the horrors of mechanised warfare. The truncated torso, mutilated and abject, then became an image of suffering, of wounded soldiery. Epstein’s own later comment about Rock Drill as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ is pulled in, as usual, to back this interpretation.

But hang on. What Epstein actually said with hindsight in 1940 in his Let There be Sculpture was this:

‘… a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into …’

Here Epstein says that the sculpture is of a Frankenstein’s monster, not that it is that monster. It’s an important distinction, for in saying this he in no way disavows the work. Far from it: Rock Drill, in all its mechanical inhumanity, is presented as a valid work of prophetic protest. As for the demounted version of 1916, Epstein simply adds:

‘I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill.’

Image267So where lie the origins of this tragic myth of transformation? As so often where the Vorticist complex is concerned, with Richard Cork. Back in 1974, in the Vorticism and its Allies exhibition catalogue, in the light of Epstein’s own comments Cork was wisely circumspect:

‘Perhaps he was unhappy with the status of a ready-made drill in a work of art … and perhaps, too, with the destructive overtones of a mechanistic sculpture now that everyone was growing aware of what machines meant in terms of real war.’

Perhaps, indeed. Fair enough. But 25 years on, by the time of his 1999 Jacob Epstein paperback for the Tate, Cork’s ‘perhaps’ had become inflated to ‘inevitable’:

‘The industrialised armaments unleashed during the First World War slaughtered soldiers and civilians in their millions, forcing innovative young artists to reconsider their attitudes. It was inevitable, then, that the war’s apocalyptic course would prompt Epstein to make radical changes to Rock Drill.’

Image264The following year, in the compilation Blast, Vorticism 1914-1918, edited by Paul Edwards, Cork expanded:

‘The Great War … claimed an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions like the rapid-fire machine gun. Once the devastating power of such weapons became widely understood, it was no longer possible to regard an object like the rock drill in a straightforwardly positive light … Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his sculpture.’

And from this last source the myth passes directly into Walsall Gallery’s own leaflets on the subject. Not just directly, but actually word for word:

Epstein’s Rock Drill, 2003: ‘By 1915 the First World War was claiming an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions such as the rapid-fire machine gun … He was no longer able to regard the “Rock Drill” and the power of machinery in such a positive light.’

Elin Morgan, Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War, 2015: ‘… as soon as the devastating power of such weapons was realised, it was no longer possible to see Rock Drill in a positive light. Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his oeuvre.’

IMGSo if Rock Drill was not deconstructed in a fit of pacifist shame, why did Epstein pull it to bits?

Well, he badly needed to make a living (a factor often overlooked by academics). And in this case the living was coming largely from American art collector John Quinn. In May 1914 Epstein described the sculpture in a letter to Quinn, admitting that he had ‘small chance of ever selling it,’ given that a nine foot stack of industrial machinery was hardly a living room piece. ‘My Rock Drill,’ he later admitted, ‘was my great adventure and I did not expect to sell it.’

So in 1915, Epstein dismounted the plaster robot, discarded the drill, and reduced the figure to a torso small enough to be cast in metal. Why? Simply because it made it saleable. In 1916 Quinn was still keen to buy, and Epstein sent him photos of the reduced and cast Rock Drill, which he priced at £200. In the end, it was not among the pieces acquired by Quinn, who was also budgeting to buy works by Gaudier-Brzeska, but it came close.

IMG_0002The prosaic is always disappointing, and the urge to discover Big Meanings is a very human and forgivable urge. But in this case tragic myth making has coloured our understanding rather too readily. As for Epstein’s alleged decision that Rock Drill ‘should be excluded’ from his oeuvre, I can find no basis for it.

It’s a pity, by the way, that Epstein’s original intention to plug in a generator to the drill, to keep it running while on display, proved impracticable. That would really have brassed off the critics.

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