An 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.’
So 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.’
The 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.’
So 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.
The 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.