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)

Tag Archives: Gaudier-Brzeska

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.

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 …

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.)

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.

BLAST-pieces (2): some Vorticist colophons

Throughout the two issues of Blast, the Vorticist journal of 1914-5, are scattered small decorative head or tail-pieces that, like standard printer’s motifs, serve to fill in a blank space at the close of an article etc.

Blast 2:47 – design by Dorothy Shakespear

These designs are interesting, in that they condense, contain, and even simplify the often unbounded, map-like expansions of shapes that form larger Vorticist compositions. They are not excerpts from the latter, but are self-contained, without relying on a rectangular frame. (A clear exception is a small rectangular design on page 47 of Blast 2, signed “D S” for Dorothy Shakespear, which, while used as a tail-piece, may not have been intended originally for quite this purpose.) In certain respects they resemble the hand held ornaments or “talismans” of Gaudier-Brzeska, though they are more classically Vorticist than these, by-passing his reliance on “primitive” natural forms.

Their existence raises the interesting issue of Vorticist ornament – though maybe this should properly be thought of as a contradiction in terms? There are antecedents in the motifs used by Wyndham Lewis in his interior decorations for the Countess of Drogheda, though these appear more compact and “African”. The Rebel Art Centre never quite got its act together in competition to the Omega, but what might Vorticist fabrics and lampshades have looked like?

Blast 1:4

The largest design, used once only on page 4 of Blast 1, opposite the “Contents” page, seems separate to the others in its style and intention. This is clearly an announcement – a stylised (almost cartoonish) explosion, a cubistic “blast”, but here the blast is that of an anarchist bomb, rather than the icy blast of the north wind signified by the storm cone motif discussed in my previous post.

The other eight colophons are more of a match. A few of those in Blast 1 had earlier been used on stationery and publications for the Rebel Art centre. One is used twice in Blast 1, while three from that volume are repeated in Blast 2, which also introduces four new designs. All are unsigned. But who drew them? Did Lewis dash them all off himself? Richard Cork (on what evidence?) states that they were “executed by Lewis and others”. (It has to be said that few of them show much resemblance to Lewis’s usual more attenuated style, though the first three shown below are broadly compatible with a similar small design by him used on the cover of the catalogue for the Dore Galleries Vorticist Exhibition of June 1915.) Did he invite a contribution from each of his collaborators? (Maybe not such a practicable process, in the circumstances.) Or are they all or mainly by another hand?

Helen Saunders, ‘Vorticist Composition in Black and White’
© Estate of Helen Saunders

In her write-up for the 1996 catalogue of the Helen Saunders exhibition (Ashmolean and Graves, Sheffield), Brigid Peppin asserts that all the colophons in Blast 2 “are clearly by different artists”, but attributes that on page 16 to the sadly eclipsed and highly under-rated Saunders, on the reasonable grounds of its similarity to some of her known pieces in which overlapping, irregular, trapezoid enclosures fold and unfold. To make the point, the catalogue itself uses as a colophon a similar drawing from the exhibition, listed as no. 10, “Vorticist Composition in Black and White”.

For that matter, it seems to me, none of the colophons in either volume are entirely incompatible with aspects of Saunders’ known work, with the possible exception of the exploding “Blast”. Certainly, those used on 1:125, 1:127, 2:10, 2:14 and 2:16 clearly show approaches that echo aspects of her other work, while they are far less of a match for Hamilton, Roberts, Etchells or Wadsworth.

1:8, 126; 2:82


1:125; 2:49

1:127; 2:69





I’d suggest that most (or maybe all) of these were very likely done by Saunders; in her role during the Blast era as unpaid amanuensis and general dogsbody for Lewis, it seems perfectly conceivable that she may have made this important but typically modest contribution. All of these eight small designs are worth leisured consideration. They are not hasty Vorticist doodles: each is in itself a satisfying composition, founded on a separate idea and entirely balanced within the laws of its own development.

Overall, Saunders’ Vorticist work is still easily neglected, and too often assumed to be “derivative”. It’s not easy to appreciate its worth when it is seen piecemeal, as it always is. A fuller view might do her more justice – perhaps a project for a future post.

Art for Heaven’s Sake: William Blake and Leon Underwood

'Torso' 1923

The opening sentence of John’s Rothenstein’s intro to Christopher Neve’s 1974 critical biography Leon Underwood makes the point that this artist “allowed himself to be half-forgotten”. Half forgotten he has remained, and nearly forty years on Neve’s book remains the only full study, though Ben Whitworth filled a significant gap in 2000 with his book on Underwood’s sculpture. A great deal could be said about Underwood – “father of modern British sculpture”, building on the experiments of Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska and mentor to Moore and Hepworth; pioneer of white-line lino cutting and wood engraving and tutor to Hughes-Stanton and Gertrude Hermes, and so on.

At its weakest, often later in his career, his work descended into a picturesque or sentimental primitivism; Underwood may have birthed Henry Moore, but the pseudo-modernist figurative “new humanism” of Nigel Konstam et al, and even the “ethnic” soap stone sculptures beloved of import shops, might be seen as in a line of descent from him. But at his most effective, mostly around the mid 1920’s to my mind, his art combined a deep appreciation of non-European cultures with the best advances of modernism. It deserves to be far better known and much more often seen.

"Man must have art for heaven's sake, for the scriptures of his religion define his heaven through intuition & imagination by the most perfect sublimation of his old desires": a wood engraving with typeset inscription, showing Underwood in full Blakeian mode, from 'Art for Heaven's Sake'.

Underwood set himself apart from the prevailing trends of his time by his insistence on the primacy of the subject in art. As he was no kind of social realist, he became, essentially, an early neo-romantic. In his father’s antique shop he had encountered the prints of William Blake, and a Blakeian sensibility informs his philosophising on art, notably in Art for Heaven’s Sake, a little pamphlet published by Faber’s in 1934. Some of the aphoristic “notes” in this verge on the platitudinous, but others have some force.  For instance:

The real essence of any organised religion has always been art. The priests have hidden the essence behind the effigies and attributes of personal gods.

At his exhibition Blake made an appeal to the public to rate art higher than popular aesthetics of his time. He forsook those aesthetic theories after having unsuccessfully tried to make use of them.

I have been able to make use of some of the aesthetic theories of to-day. My difficulty with so many of them is that they are too abstract – too dissociated from life to hold poetry which runs out of them as out of a colander.

For the artist, everything counts – even breakages count – and the imaginative artist’s selection, for his purpose, from everything that is available to him must tend towards complexity. His path is therefore one of synthesis, not analysis.

I do not consider intuition better for being independent of reason. The ideal is the synthesis of the faculties, as Blake implies by ‘The marriage of Heaven and Hell’.

Science has nothing to do with art – nothing.

Interestingly, given his own immersion in the cultures of Africa and Latin America, Underwood was at pains to play down  the claims of primitivism:

The modern styles which derive from primitive and archaic forms are not, as they stand, valid for the expression of the Western mind; because from their rude abstractions, the Western mind is too distantly removed by its complex development. They can appeal only to its child or immature states.

'Mindslave' 1934

This equation of “primitive” peoples with children (and “primitive” art with child art) has long been discredited. Underwood also repudiated both “mechanics” in art and the “return to mediaevalism” of the Arts and Crafts movement. What he envisaged in their place, beyond his broad appeals to “originality”, “freedom” and “imagination” (all supposedly “English racial traits”), is not made clear, either in his philosophising nor consistently in his artwork, which eventually came to embrace at times a decorative Africanism close to tourist art, or else a sort of twee anatomical athleticism.

But at other times, his work could be astoundingly sure and beautiful, and the best of it far transcends the unevenness of his career, his tendency towards kitsch, and the uncertain rhetoric of his theorising.