Illustrated companion

This is one of a group of carved sculptures by Epstein made between about 1908 and 1917, which constitute a major contribution to the history of early modern sculpture. In his work of that period Epstein also laid the foundations of a sculptural tradition in Britain which, taken up by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in the 1920s, has grown in importance ever since.

Epstein developed a fresh approach by adopting the procedure of 'direct carving', and by drawing inspiration, as were many artists of the continental avant-garde, from sources outside Europe: in particular Epstein was an early and distinguished collector and connoisseur of African tribal art. From this he evolved a personal vision of the mystery of procreation and during this early phase of his career produced fourteen sculptures, all but one ('The Rock Drill' [see Tate Gallery T00363 and T00340]) stone carvings on themes of copulation, pregnancy and birth. 'Direct carving' means carving without a detailed model or maquette, allowing the final form of the work to emerge through the process of physically working the stone. With direct carving went the idea of 'truth to materials' - preserving the feeling of the original block of stone (or wood) and creating simple uncluttered surfaces, or otherwise working the material so as to present its colour, and texture or markings, as aesthetic elements in themselves. Preserving the block, in particular, gives early modern carved sculpture a quality of elemental force and weight which was central to the aims of its creators.

Epstein received a crucial stimulus when in Paris in 1912 he met Brancusi and Modigliani whose very similar approach was much more fully evolved than his. In particular Brancusi had taken the unprecedented step of making major works of sculpture based on animal rather than human imagery. In his Autobiography Epstein recounted 'I finally decided to leave Paris for good, and coming to England I rented a bungalow on the Sussex coast at a solitary place called Pett Level, where I could look out to sea and carve away to my heart's content without troubling a soul. It was here that I carved the "Venus", the three groups of doves, the two flenite carvings and the marble 'Mother and Child .." ' As this indicates Epstein made no less than three versions of this image of mating birds and it seems likely that he regarded it as a universal or archetypal expression of the theme of fertilisation. The Tate Gallery version is believed to be the last of the three and is the most block-like and geometric, reflecting Epstein's interest in Vorticist ideas at this time. Ezra Pound, an important critical supporter of Vorticism, considered it to be the most sculpturally successful of the three, probably because the doves are almost completely unified into a near abstract hard edged ovoid, although the act of copulation remains vividly expressed, not least by the swollen phallic neck and head of the male dove which abruptly breaks the composition at the front. Pound wrote to the American collector John Quinn, an early patron of Epstein and the Vorticists, '... if you are still getting Jacob's "Birds", for God's sake get the two that are stuck together ...'

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.132