When the sculptor Henry Moore claimed that Epstein had been a modeller rather than a carver, who preferred clay to stone, he imposed a dichotomy on his work that has divided critics ever since. Yet Epstein himself rejected the distinction, emphasising instead the intense interest in humanity which binds together the seemingly disparate strands of his oeuvre. Though it challenged conventional ways of seeing the body, his carving, like his modelled clay portraits, always sought to project a fundamentally human meaning. In these terms, his career becomes more coherent than the received narrative of frustration, isolation, and bifurcation allows. His carving and modelling should be seen as aspects of a consistent, humanistic vision, rather than as competing practices.
‘It is well not to be too dogmatic as to what is sculpture and what is not’, declared Epstein in his autobiography. ‘Personally I place my portrait work in as important a category as I place any other work of mine, and I am content to be judged by it.’ He modelled dozens of portraits across the span of his working life, some commissioned by the wealthy or famous, others sensitive depictions of infants, or the dispossessed. He himself attached particular importance to his renditions of children, because he felt that sculpture had scarcely before touched on the subject. The problem, he admitted, was practical. A child will not sit still, while its physiognomy is deceptively simple, tantalizingly subtle. Nevertheless, works such as his Fourth Portrait of Leda (1940) and Baby Asleep (1902-04) capture the children’s sensual chubbiness and charm. At the other extreme, he could imbue an elderly face with a life-time’s experience. In his portrayal of Ralph Vaughan Williams, shown here, the composer glances aside with gentle scepticism, his face contoured with the asymmetric delineation of passion and forbearance.
Sitters recollect Epstein’s dynamic manner of working. He was ‘a being transformed’, remembers the artist Clare Sheridan, whose ‘movement, his stooping and bending, his leaping back, poised, then rushing forward, his trick of passing clay from one hand to the other over the top of his head while he scrutinised his work from all angles, was the equivalent of a dance’. He used a flat wooden tool with which to apply the clay, rather than his fingers, paying primary attention to the bone-structure of skull and face. In his early portraits, he took care to smooth the surface of the clay. His famous model of Romilly John (1907), with its helmet-like head of burnished bronze, is polished to the touch. Yet from about 1916 onwards, he began deliberately to leave his subject’s skin pitted and impressionistic, arguing that the roughened texture gave the face more individual character. The broken surface also preserves the trace of the sculptor’s hand, accentuating the materiality of the worked clay, just as direct carving celebrates the quintessence of stone.
‘You are quite right in discussing these works as if they were human beings’, Epstein told his friend Arnold Haskell. ‘There are three people who go to the making of works such as these, which express not abstract ideas, but actual people who exist; the model, the artist and the spectator.’ His remark raises questions of authority and self-expression that go to the heart of Epstein’s conception of himself as an artist. In avoiding abstraction, he avoided the idea of art’s autonomy propounded by his avant-garde contemporaries, casting himself rather in the role of honest observer, who expresses the great empirical truths of human nature. Portraiture made a strong statement of his commitment to human observation. He claimed to have approached each subject scientifically, indulging no preconceptions, but rather allowing the character gradually to emerge.
A photograph of Epstein posing with a model and portrait together shows how life-like were his interpretations. Yet he claims that many of his subjects found it difficult to admit the resemblance. George Bernard Shaw, for example, found his portrait puzzling. ‘He believed that I had made a kind of primitive barbarian of him’, remembers Epstein in his memoirs. ‘Something altogether uncivilised and really a projection of myself, rather than of him.’ It could be that Epstein exaggerated the scragginess of Shaw’s beard and the bushiness of his brow. After all, he argued that a degree of caricature is necessary to give a face distinction. Nevertheless, it seems likely that it was Shaw who was projecting the character of primitive upon Epstein, rather than the other way round. With the growing anti-semitism of the interwar years, Epstein himself became increasingly caricatured as a barbarian Jew, infiltrating and corrupting British art. Even for those, like Shaw, who championed his work, he carried the aura of a savage.