RA Magazine Autumn 2009
Issue Number: 104
In search of the wild things
This autumn the RA presents a major survey of the work of Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. A reassessment of the sensational achievements of the artists who became known as ‘sculptors in revolt’, it is also a culmination of a personal quest by its curator. Richard Cork tells his, and the show’s, story.
Jacob Epstein, Rock Drill, (Reconstruction by Ken Cook and Ann Christoper RA after the dismantled original), 1913-15, Polyester resin, metal and wood 205 x 141.5 cm Was there a dramatic, revolutionary moment when sculpture in Britain first became uncompromisingly modern? Many imagine that it occurred around 1930, when the young Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore reached their early maturity. But the truth is very different. The decisive moment happened just before the First World War, when Jacob Epstein invited some friends in December 1913 to see his extraordinary new sculpture, Rock Drill.
There, in the deserted winter gloom of his London studio, a former garage in Lambs Conduit Street, they were confronted by an eerie, towering apparition. It challenged everyone’s ideas about what sculpture might be. Epstein’s friend David Bomberg never forgot the unnerving impact of Rock Drill, and recalled many years later how astonished he felt to see ‘perched near the top of the tripod which held the drill, a tense figure operating the drill as if it were a machine gun, a prophetic symbol, I thought later, of the impending war’.
Even at this stage, before Epstein exhibited his visionary work, it ignited explosive disagreement among his friends. He remembered that Henri Gaudier-Brzeska ‘was very enthusiastic about it when he visited my studio in 1913 with Ezra Pound to view it. Pound started expatiating on the work. Gaudier turned on him and snapped, “Shut up, you understand nothing!”’
Epstein may first have decided to make this immensely daring tour de force while watching men and machines cutting stone in a quarry. He later recalled: ‘My ardour for machinery (short-lived) expended itself upon the purchase of an actual drill, second-hand, and upon this I made and mounted a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow.’
By incorporating a real machine in a work of art, Epstein proved himself just as daring as Marcel Duchamp. And when he exhibited this version in March 1915 at the London Group, critics recoiled in disgust from the sight of his ghostly driller in white plaster straddling a machine mounted on a tripod base. One enraged reviewer called it ‘indescribably revolting’, and a horrified Augustus John wrote that under the driller’s ribs ‘is the vague shape of a rudimentary child or is it something indigestible he has been eating? Altogether the most hideous thing I’ve seen.’
At some point in 1915, Epstein decided to sell the drill, chop off the driller’s legs, sever his hand and cast the remaining torso in bronze. The original Rock Drill was gone forever.
By the early 1970s, I realised just how revelatory a full-scale reconstruction of this lost landmark in the history of modern sculpture would be. Researching for a book on Vorticism, and also curating an exhibition, ‘Vorticism and Its Allies’ at the Hayward Gallery, I became determined to resurrect the first version of Rock Drill. Yet how on earth could it be done?
Curiously, the answer began with an invitation to a rousing performance of The Rocky Horror Show, starring my old school friend Tim Curry as Dr Frank N. Furter. At the end, quite by chance, I was introduced to Ann Christopher, now a distinguished RA, and her husband Ken Cook. I told them about my dream of recreating the sculpture we laughingly nicknamed ‘Rocky the Driller’. They warmed to the idea at once and, with the cool self-confidence of youth, assured me that they could make a reconstruction for my Hayward Gallery show.
Where, though, might I discover and borrow an appropriate drill? In the end an expert from London’s Science Museum recommended two leading rock-drill manufacturers. I drew a blank with Ingersoll Rand, based in New Jersey. But I received a far more positive response from Holman Brothers Ltd. Writing at once from their Cornish headquarters in Camborne, the Sales Promotion Manager E. C. McKay informed me: ‘We do have an example of this type of drill in our own company museum’. He even declared: ‘We would be pleased to co-operate with you by loaning you the drill for your exhibition’.
Ann Christopher, her husband, my wife Vena and I arranged a train trip to Camborne. We found that Holman Brothers had created a mesmerising museum to celebrate their impressive history in the international mining industry. The drill they had singled out for us looked ideal for the purpose, and after returning to London we asked Joanna Drew, then the Director of the Hayward Gallery, if Christopher and her husband could be commissioned to reconstruct Rock Drill in time for the Vorticism exhibition. It was a very tight deadline: only four months were left before the show opened. But to our delight, Drew gave it the go-ahead.
Initially, there was a problem. Ken Cook remembers that the Tate, which owned the surviving bronze torso from Rock Drill, ‘wouldn’t let us take a cast from their original. So Ann and I spent time in the Tate making a cardboard replica to actual size. Then, down in Bristol, we transferred it to clay and then plaster.’ His wife, who recalls ‘feeling very cross with the Tate’s decision’, now believes ‘in retrospect that it was actually very good, forcing us to make the shapes ourselves and get us right inside Epstein’s head’.
In fact ‘we had no trouble making it’, recalls Cook, who had a spacious studio at the West of England College of Art in Bristol. ‘We were so confident, and everything seemed to fit into place – including the missing drill rod, which we made in wood.’ Yet he does remember ‘feeling very apprehensive when we drove up to London with the newly completed pieces of Rock Drill – the machine and the white plaster driller – all packed up in our little car’. The couple felt even more nervous when they carried the sculpture to the Hayward and met Norbert Lynton, the Director of Exhibitions. ‘But once we put up Rock Drill in the gallery’, says Cook, ‘everyone went: “Wow!”’
Epstein’s uncannily prophetic robot on its phallic machine became the centrepiece of the show. Nigel Gosling, reviewing the exhibition in the Observer, called the sculpture ‘stunning’, while art critic John Russell summed up the widespread enthusiasm by declaring in the Sunday Times that the Rock Drill reconstruction ‘deserves to draw the town, so vividly does it augment the impact of what was always a key work of the period’.
After the show ended, this superb achievement was exhibited by Holman Brothers at Camborne. Just in time: soon afterwards, their museum was demolished and replaced by a Tesco. Thankfully, after Christopher and her husband cast the plaster driller in resin, Rock Drill was acquired in 1982 (‘for the sum of £1,000 plus VAT’) by Birmingham City Art Gallery, which is now lending it to the ‘Wild Thing’ exhibition at the Royal Academy.
The reconstruction will be a revelation to many visitors, but there are plenty of other outstanding, little-known works in the show. Not only by Epstein, but also by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Eric Gill. Between them, these three young men transformed modern sculpture in London before the First World War.
The title ‘Wild Thing’ for the exhibition, the first-ever survey of their revolutionary moment, reflects this sense of audacity. It refers to Ezra Pound’s vivid recollection of a life-changing encounter in the summer of 1913. As a poet, Pound was fast becoming involved with writing about radical new art. It prompted him to visit a survey of contemporary work at the Royal Albert Hall. Unimpressed by most of the contributors, Pound suddenly realised that he was being followed at a distance by a playful artist who looked ‘like a well-made young wolf or some soft-moving, bright-eyed wild thing’. It was the 21-year-old Frenchman Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who proudly identified himself as the sculptor responsible for the Wrestler of 1913 and then ‘disappeared like a Greek god in a vision’.
The two men swiftly became friends, but Gaudier-Brzeska was not the only young insurgent bent on transforming sculpture in London. The term ‘wild thing’, which later became the title of an iconic rock song, also sums up the untamed spirit of rebellion then driving Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill. Their origins could hardly have been more different. Epstein was from New York, the son of refugee Polish immigrants deeply attached to Orthodox Judaism. Stimulated by the close-packed and multi-racial vitality of his neighbourhood on the Lower East Side, he was open to a rich variety of sculptural influences from African, Oceanic and Asian sources.
Gill, by extreme contrast, was the son of a Brighton clergyman of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion – an idiosyncratic sect of Calvinist Methodists. However much Gill felt free to indulge in even the most illicit of erotic pleasures, the Christian religion remained of prime importance to him. He became a Roman Catholic in 1913, and never forgot the large card installed in the family breakfast room by his father. It contained a realistic image of a great eye, accompanied by the text ‘Thou God seest me.’
Yet these highly diverse characters shared a bold dissatisfaction with hallowed academic ideals, and the concept of wildness lay at the centre of their audacious innovations. The Pall Mall Gazette decided that Epstein should be described as ‘a sculptor in revolt, who is in deadly conflict with the ideas of current sculpture’. So, too, was Gill, who looked far beyond the classical tradition to gain fresh stimulus from what Gaudier-Brzeska excitedly called ‘the barbaric peoples of the earth (for whom we have sympathy and admiration)’.
In 1905, when Epstein came to London, an awareness of the need for radical renewal of many kinds was spreading across the nation. Epstein, who had spent three years studying in Paris under the nickname ‘the American savage’, arrived in London with a commendatory letter from Rodin. So he was well placed to bring about a transformation, and public scandal erupted when in 1908 his carvings for the new British Medical Association headquarters appeared in the Strand. The enraged National Vigilance Association, whose offices were immediately opposite the BMA, condemned the nakedness of Epstein’s figures. Only a militant national campaign saved the statues from destruction, and henceforth he was often vilified in his adopted country. But Epstein found an ally when Gill came to the defence of the Strand statues, declaring that they would ‘rescue sculpture from the grave to which ignorance and indifference had consigned it’.
The two young sculptors formed a fruitful friendship. Committed to ‘carving direct’, they took full responsibility for the execution of each work and honoured the innate character of their chosen stones. Both men also shared a desire to return to the prehistoric origins of sculptural expression. In 1910 Epstein and Gill collaborated on a visionary plan for a titanic temple of love, to be erected in the Sussex countryside. Gill described it as a ‘great scheme of doing some colossal figures together... a sort of twentieth century Stonehenge’. Although never realised, the project was dominated by their obsessions with virility, fertility, copulation and birth.
Gill, who insisted that Epstein was ‘quite mad about sex’, proved his own willingness to explore a similar urge in Ecstasy of 1910-11. An astonishingly explicit relief carving of the sexual act, it is based on the naked, posed figures of his sister Gladys and her husband. But Gill was also fired by the brazen sensuality of Hindu sculpture, and India may well have given him the idea for the temple venture. He was equally provocative in his carving A Roland for an Oliver (Joie de Vivre) of 1910, where a grinning, naked woman with brazenly exposed genitals stands as a companion to a pious carving of the Crucifixion. These two works, long since split up, will regain their full, provocative impact when reunited in the ‘Wild Thing’ exhibition.
The show will also display, for the very first time in a public gallery, a heartfelt Gill carving whose whereabouts had been a mystery. Only a chance remark last year by its owner’s brother enabled me to track down the missing sculpture. I lost no time in making a trip to Cambridge, where I was elated to discover that this exceptional carving was commissioned in 1913 by Geoffrey Keynes and has remained safely in the family collection ever since. A superb image of a baby eagerly closing on the maternal nipple, it shows Gill’s true prowess as a carver of stone. And another unseen sculpture, the feisty Hampshire Hog, 1915 which I was astonished to find marooned on a lonely staircase in Hampshire County Council’s offices in Winchester, reveals Gill’s ability to give animals an irresistible sense of vitality.
To my delight, little-known masterpieces by Epstein are travelling to the exhibition as well. Yale University Art Gallery agreed to lend by far his most ambitious, monumental carving of the pre-war period: his white marble Venus of 1914-16, rising up from a pair of copulating doves. Unseen in Britain since 1917, when it was exhibited in London for the first and only time, this serene and radically simplified goddess remains faithful to the elemental wholeness of the block from which she was carved. Intriguingly, Epstein was more than a little infatuated with his Venus: he confessed to a friend that if people knew ‘what I’ve expressed’ in this carving, ‘they would be unholily shocked’.
No wonder that Gaudier-Brzeska, unknown when he moved to London in 1911 at the age of nineteen, became so eager to seek out Epstein. The American was eleven years older than the Frenchman, who had only started carving after visiting Epstein’s studio. They became friends, and Epstein admired the astonishingly precocious talent enlivening Gaudier-Brzeska’s drawings, as well as his sculpture. Carvings as little-known as his Crouching Fawn of 1913 will be revealed at the exhibition, where loans from Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and other owners will show the full range of Gaudier-Brzeska’s inventiveness.
Stretching from the gentle eroticism of Mermaid (1913) to the violence of Bird Swallowing a Fish of 1914, his achievements culminate in the great limestone carving Birds Erect of 1914 which has been loaned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This powerful and dynamically near-abstract work embodies Gaudier’s belief that ‘sculptural energy is the mountain’.
Only 23 when he met his tragically premature death on a French battlefield in 1915, Gaudier was one of the greatest losses sustained by the arts during the First World War. Epstein, deeply shocked, decided soon afterwards to dismantle the first version of Rock Drill. Yet the towering presence of its reconstruction at the ‘Wild Thing’ show will demonstrate Epstein’s ability to foreshadow not only the machine-gun devastation of the First World War but western culture’s subsequent obsession – in everything from comics to Hollywood movies – with sinister robotic power.
Looking back on Rock Drill in 1940, when another world war had erupted, Epstein said his sculpture conveyed ‘no humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into’. It offers a haunting prophecy, ensuring that Rock Drill has lost none of its pertinence today. And whenever I look at the driller’s plaster head, which Ann Christopher and Ken Cook gave me as a memento of our adventure, it makes me realise just how impressively they were able to recreate Epstein’s ominous masterwork.
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