Sir Jacob Epstein

Torso in Metal from ‘The Rock Drill’


On display at Tate Britain

Sir Jacob Epstein 1880–1959
Object: 705 x 584 x 445 mm
Purchased 1960

Display caption

For this sculpture, Epstein originally set a plaster figure on top of a real industrial rock drill. This ‘machine-like robot, visored, menacing and carrying within itself its progeny’ was a symbol of the new age. Epstein’s attitude changed, however, as news of the very large number of casualties wrought by the mechanised warfare of the First World War was fully realised. Epstein removed the drill, and cut the figure down at the waist before casting it in bronze. Mutilated and shorn of its virility, the once-threatening figure is now vulnerable and impotent, as much a victim as a perpetrator of violence.

Gallery label, September 2016

Catalogue entry

T00340 THE ROCK DRILL 1913–14
Not inscribed.
Bronze, 27 3/4×23×17 1/2 (70·5×58·5×44·5).
Purchased from Lady Epstein (Grant-in-Aid) 1960.
Exh: Edinburgh Festival, August–September 1961 (47, repr. pl.7); Arts Council, Tate Gallery, November–December 1961 (8).
Lit: Haskell, 1931, p.45; Powell, 1932, p.7; Epstein, 1940, p.70; ibid., 1955, p.56; Buckle, 1963, pp.68, 88, 422, 425, repr. pls.95, 96.
Repr: The Times, 6 April 1960; Sir John Rothenstein, British Art since 1900, 1962, pl.39.

The original plaster model was made in 1913 when the novelty of mechanization was being explored by the Cubist, Futurist and Vorticist movements. It was exhibited at the London Group, March 1915 (91), when the figure was mounted on an actual rock drill (see Epstein, 1940, repr. facing p. 38; Buckle, op.cit., repr. pl.94). The plaster differs from the final bronze in the treatment of the arms: the right arm has forearm and hand in the plaster, but these are left out in the bronze; whereas the left arm, which appears truncated in the plaster, is extended across the body in the bronze. An early bronze cast purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1956, was probably that exhibited at the London Group, June 1916 (100), as ‘Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill.’

The artist stated in The Sculptor Speaks, 1931, p.45: '“The Rock Drill” is not entirely abstract. It is a conception of a thing I knew well in New York and is my feeling of that thing as a living entity, translated into terms of sculpture. It is a thing prophetic of much of the great war and as such within the experience of nearly all and has therefore very definite human associations. He wrote further in Autobiography, 1940, p.56: ‘It was in the experimental pre-war days of 1913 that I was fired to do the rock-drill, and 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. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein's monster we have made ourselves into.... Later I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill. I cast in metal only the upper part of the figure.’

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I

Further reading

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