Iris Beerbohm Tree, the youngest daughter of the actor-manager Sir Herbert Tree and niece of the satirical artist Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), was a poet. This cast was bought by Dorothy Schmidt from Epstein. Another cast was purchased by John Quinn, an American lawyer who, between 1902 and his death in 1924, established a reputation as one of the most important collectors of European avant-garde art. The bust was first shown at the annual exhibition of the National Portrait Society, London in 1916. A year later it was included in Epstein's first solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, London where it was offered in an edition of six casts.
In March 1915 Rock Drill, Epstein's homage to the redemptive potential of machines, was displayed at the London Group exhibition where it was generally derided by the critics as a ridiculous and loathsome sculpture. Over the year Epstein's enthusiasm for machines waned as news of the very large number of casualties wrought by the mechanised warfare of the First World War (1914-18) reached Britain. In the second half of the year he mutilated Rock Drill and recast the head and partly dismembered torso in bronze as Torso in Metal from the 'Rock Drill' (Tate T00340). This dramatic disavowal of Rock Drill marked a growing disaffection with the machine aesthetic of much avant-garde art. In a letter to Quinn he warned 'you are inclined to overrate what you call advanced work; not all advanced work is good, some of it is damn damn bad' (quoted in Cork, p.40). Portrait of Iris Beerbohm Tree was made during this period.
Richard Cork has commented on the skilful fusion of the abstracted element of the helmet of hair, a device Epstein first used in Romilly John 1907 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), a sculpture of Augustus John's second son when an infant, and the representational rendering of the model's face and neck. The contrast between the two is accentuated further by the smooth burnished surface of the hair and the patina and rougher texture of the rest of the bust. In correspondence with Quinn Epstein gave specific instructions that only the hair should be polished. In Romilly John there was no local variation in the treatment of the surface, the whole piece being smooth and having a uniform patina. The use of contrasting patination in Portrait of Iris Beerbohm Tree may have been copied from Constantin Brancusi's (1876-1957) hieratic heads, for example Mademoiselle Pogany (Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris), 1913. Epstein and Brancusi had become friends in 1912 when Epstein was in Paris to oversee the installation of The Tomb of Oscar Wilde at Père Lachaise Cemetery. However, Brancusi reserved the smooth, burnished finish for the flesh of these heads and contrasted this with a dark patination for the hair.
Richard Cork, Jacob Epstein, London 1999, reproduced p.41, pl.33 (colour)
Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Jacob Epstein, Oxford 1986, reproduced p.136, cat.no.60
Jacob Epstein: Sculpture and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Galleries, Leeds 1987