Epstein: Stories in Stone: 19th March – 31st May

This article was first published in the Friends of Coventry Cathedral Chairman’s newsletter. Martin Williams, CovSoc member and Chairman of the Friends writes…

This Jacob Epstein exhibition in the Cathedral, sponsored by the Coventry City of Culture Trust, will bring together examples of the artist’s work from many collections. It will include the famously controversial sculpture Jacob and the Angel from Tate Britain. The Friends of Coventry Cathedral have made a supporting grant towards the exhibition.

In the 1950s Epstein’s appointment as a sculptor for Coventry Cathedral was widely described in the press as controversial. Whenever I read that expression I was puzzled as for a long time my only experience of the sculptor was the statuesque figure of St Michael overlooking the Cathedral entrance steps. It was only later when I read his biography that I understood just how controversial a figure he was. 

We are soon to see his sculpture “Jacob and the Angel” in Coventry Cathedral. That piece was central to one of the most heated public controversies that dogged Epstein’s career, so it is important to look at Epstein’s controversial past in a little more detail.

Epstein was born on 10 November 1880 in New York, of Polish-Jewish parentage. He settled in London in 1905 where he lived and worked until his death in 1959.

Before Covid-19 hit us all I spent a day in London viewing examples of Epstein’s public work. In The Strand I saw the remnants of the greatest controversy that at the start of Epstein’s public work set the tone to be adopted by the media whenever any new Epstein sculpture was later unveiled. In 1907 he received the commission for 18 larger than life sculptured figures to decorate a new BMA (British Medical Association) building in the Strand. (Today that building is the Zimbabwe Embassy.) The theme was The Ages Of Man.

Passers-by just stood and stared at the naked bodies

The sight of the first four naked figures that he sculpted produced furiously explosive criticism from the Evening Standard. “…they are a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating man wish his fiancée, to see…. The question arises how they were permitted to be erected…” This started a fierce storm of criticism across the popular press. A similar outbreak was to greet every new Epstein sculpture for the next 30 years. It blighted his career.

When the storm of criticism began, the Metropolitan police were asked to prepare a report. Sightseers stood up on open top buses to get a better view of the figures sited 50 feet above street level. The Bishop of Stepney declared the figures to be decent, while correspondents from across the country expressed opposite views in the press. Leading art critics voiced their support. Some religious groups and many tabloid press editorials expressed opposition. Young Epstein was called to explain himself to the BMA. In spite of all this, the sculpted figures survived – and the debate continued.

a.The figure of “Nature”.   b.Workmen hacking off extremities.    c.Today

In 1935 the government of Southern Rhodesia bought the BMA building. The High Commissioner announced that the Epstein sculptures were to be removed, and the controversy re-ignited. With loud voices in support of both sides of the argument, the building’s owners backed off and took no action. Two years later during the removal of decorations attached to the statues in celebration of King George VI’s coronation, a statue head was dislodged. Now, in the interests of public safety, the “extremities” of all the statues were removed (i.e. hacked off). 

As the building originally belonged to the BMA, Epstein could not argue that amputation is inappropriate (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 3 August 1937).

Epstein wrote, “Anyone passing along the Strand can now see, as on some antique building, the mutilated fragments of my decoration.”

Epstein’s “Jacob and the Angel” is a work from 1941.   This sculpture dealing with a Biblical subject was once viewed as shocking on account of its sensual and sexual undertones. The popular press weighed in from all directions. ‘Epstein Turns Out New Six-Tonner’, read the Daily Sketch headline while the Daily Mail asked: ‘Is this a miracle or a monstrosity?’

Jacob and the Angel 1940

After its first exhibition this statue spent more years as an exhibit in sensational shows and in a Blackpool waxworks than in any art galleries or museums. The public’s disapproving curiosity proved to be really good for business. People queued to see ‘Epstein’s Latest Sensation’ that was labelled ‘Adults Only’. In just ten days on show in Oxford Street, London with three other Epstein sculptures the carving earned the promoter £500 in admission fees and was seen by more than 50,000 people.

On exhibition in Blackpool

As the years went by the work of Jacob Epstein was reassessed and his past sculptures ceased to be considered so controversial – even if some elements of the past controversies and prejudices still survive. 

“St Michael and the Devil” was one of Epstein’s final works. It was unveiled at the Cathedral in 1960, one year after Epstein’s death. In 1961 the Edinburgh Festival Society mounted a comprehensive Epstein Memorial Exhibition with over 230 exhibits. There was another slightly smaller Memorial Exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London the same year. By 1962 and the date of the Cathedral Consecration there had been a general re-assessment of Epstein assisted by these retrospective collections of his work.

The 1961 Edinburgh Exhibition featured several of Epstein’s works with links to Coventry Cathedral.   A plaster cast of “St Michael and the Devil” was suspended in welcome high above the Exhibition entrance, the original having already been installed on the Cathedral wall. 


St Michael and the Devil In Edinburgh 1961

“Christ in Majesty” (plaster cast) was also on display. Today the original of this sculpture adorns the organ loft of Llandaff Cathedral, but during the 1962 Consecration Festival of the Arts that cast was part of the exhibition “Our Daily Bread” arranged by the Coventry Council of Churches. This exhibition, on the site of the old static water tank opposite the Golden Cross, demonstrated the response of the church to the needy.

Four of the Coventry Cathedral door handles are adorned with Epstein’s child portraits. The Memorial Exhibition included three of the heads (‘Peter laughing’, ‘Ian’ and ‘Annabel’) on which they are based.

None of these works seems controversial to me.

As for Jacob And The Angel….? At the Epstein Exhibition we will all be able to judge that for ourselves.

The exhibition is running from 19 March 2022 until 31 May 2022 from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm at the Cathedral

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