In the 1930s Epstein embarked upon a series of landscape and flower studies which were highly unusual in his oeuvre. Renowned as an avant-garde sculptor whose work had challenged audiences and critics by rejecting western traditions in favour of an aesthetic inflected by the art of Africa, Asia and Polynesia, Epstein reverted in these works to a more orthodox subject-matter and style.
The ancient woodland of Epping Forest in Essex, a large tract of uncultivated land to the north east of London, had long held a fascination for Epstein. Since 1922 he had rented a number of properties in the area, as a retreat from the bustle and diversions of London. Epping Forest was completed during a frenetic summer of painting in 1933 in which Epstein completed nearly a hundred watercolours. 'I would go out with my daughter [Peggy Jean] and we did not have to walk far before seeing something worth painting,' Epstein reminisced in 1940. For a short period, he even abandoned sculpture altogether. 'As usual with me, what I started as a mere diversion became in the end a passion, and I could think of nothing else but painting. I arose to paint, and painted until sundown' (Epstein, p.165). The watercolours were exhibited to great acclaim in London at Arthur Tooth & Son in December 1933. As Epstein noted, 'I was very pleased with the result, and the paintings looked well' (Epstein, p.165).
In technique, Epping Forest shows an affinity with the plein air painting of the French and British Impressionists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Working with watercolour and gouache (a quick-drying opaque watercolour), Epstein could work speedily to capture the fleeting effects of nature; carrying his paints and brushes into the Forest, he would pin a sheet of paper to his board, using a chair as a makeshift easel. In temperament, however, the Epping Forest works have something of the mystical quality associated with the landscapes of Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). Just as Palmer romanticised the landscape around his home at Shoreham in Kent, for example in A Hilly Scene c.1826-8 (Tate N05805), Epstein evoked here his own vision of a pastoral idyll. Untouched by the outside world, Epstein's Forest is never peopled, despite its great popularity as a beauty spot. For him, it was a mystical place whose 'luxuriance … filled his mind with curious visions and imaginary tales inspired by nature, its trees, its creatures' (Gardiner, p.329). His idealisation of the Essex countryside was lent further weight by the popular romantic mythology surrounding the Forest, with its prehistoric encampments, its history as a royal Tudor hunting ground and haunt of illustrious highwaymen, and its utopian status as a free, unenclosed area of land dedicated to the people by Queen Victoria.
Epstein's rural zeal was a foil to his urban upbringing and sensibility. The son of Polish immigrants living on New York's Lower East Side, he had earned his reputation with a set of illustrations for Hutchins Hapgood's 1902 The Spirit of the Ghetto, charcoal and crayon drawings of teeming streets and jostling crowds. As he recalled in his autobiography, his earliest memories were of the densely populated city with 'its unique and crowded humanity' (Epstein, p.11). In London too, where Epstein settled after 1916, he thrived on sociability, frequenting bohemian haunts like the Café Royal in Regent Street and eagerly joining the crowds in Hyde Park to listen to the orators at Marble Arch. Yet alongside this intense interest in people and the hubub of the city, Epstein was also inspired by the rawness and solitude of the countryside. It was during a formative sojourn in 1895 at Greenwood Lake in the Catskill Mountains in New Jersey that he first decided on his vocation as a sculptor; it was in the solitary quietude of the remote Sussex countryside at Pett Level that he executed many of his most important sculptures between 1912 and 1916, including Female Figure in Flenite 1913 (Tate T01691) and Doves 1914-15 (Tate T01820). At Epping Forest too, Epstein worked fruitfully on a number of key sculptures such as Rima (Hyde Park, London), the 1923-5 memorial to the writer W. H. Hudson (1841-1922), and Genesis 1929-30 (Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester), both of which drew on his belief in the elemental force of nature.
The success of the Epping Forest watercolours at Tooth's led to a commission from the Dutch dealer Ascher & Velker for Epstein to paint a series of flower studies. Once again he threw himself wholeheartedly into the venture, producing more than 300 paintings which included Dahlias c.1936 (Tate T05758) and Dahlias and Sunflower c.1936 (Tate T05759).
Richard Cork, Jacob Epstein, London 1999
Jacob Epstein, Let There Be Sculpture: An Autobiography, London 1940
Stephen Gardiner, Epstein: Artist Against the Establishment, London 1992, pp.329-32, 334-6, 381