Sir Jacob Epstein



Not on display

Sir Jacob Epstein 1880–1959
Greek marble
Object: 648 × 787 × 343 mm
Purchased 1973

Display caption

Jacob Epstein moved to England from America in 1905. The sculpture of Epstein and his contemporaries represented a new direction in British sculpture. They used ‘direct carving’, a method of cutting directly into wood or stone, choosing not to create preparatory wax or clay models as had been traditional.
Epstein collected African and Oceanic sculpture, which influenced the bold simplified forms of his work. Doves represents two copulating birds and reflects Epstein’s interest in exploring sexuality and procreation and his wish to find subjects that were expressive but not complicated.

Gallery label, March 2018

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Catalogue entry

Sir Jacob Epstein 1880–1959

T01820 Doves c.1913

Not inscribed.
Parian marble, 25½ x 31½ x 13½ (64.8 x 78.8x 31.8).
Purchased at Christie’s (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Coll: Bt. by John Quinn from the artist in 1915; sold American Arts Association Sale, New York, 12 February 1927 (712, repr.); ? Sydney J. Lamon; sold Christie’s, 4 December 1973 (109, repr.); bt. Anthony d’Offay for the Tate Gallery.
Lit: Jacob Epstein, Autobiography, 1955, p.49; Richard Buckle, Jacob Epstein, Sculptor, 1963, p.79; Richard Cork, Catalogue of Vorticism and its Allies, Hayward Gallery, 1974, p.43.
Repr: John Quinn, 1870–1925: Collection of Paintings, Water colours, Drawings & Sculpture, Pidgeon Hill Press, N.Y., 1926, No. 192; The Guardian, 5 December 1973.

Epstein was in Paris between June and November 1912 working on Oscar Wilde’s tomb. During his stay he made a number of contacts among the Parisian avant-garde including Brancusi, Modigliani and Picasso. Although, as his output immediately following this period shows, these contacts and the experimental climate there proved a great stimulus, he found cafe and studio life distracting and his stay ‘arid’ from the point of view of work. According to his Autobiography: ‘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”... this was a period of intense activity, and were it not for the war and the impossibility of living in the country and making a living I would have lived here for ever.’ Epstein left Pett Level in 1916.

He carved four bird sculptures at this time, the three groups of doves and a ‘Bird, Pluming Itself’ exhibited at the London Group in March 1914. Its appearance and present whereabouts are not known. Each of the three groups of doves represents a pair of copulating birds. The whereabouts of one group is unknown (sold Sotheby’s, 15 April 1964, 98 repr.); a second is T01820 and a third is in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. All three versions are carved in marble, T01820 and the Israel Museum’s being in Greek Parian marble. The order in which they were carved has not been established but Buckle (op. cit.) has entitled them respectively First, Second and Third Marble Doves. The least naturalistic of the three groups, T01820 is also much the most compact in treatment. Whereas in the ‘First’ and ‘Third’ versions the male and female birds appear as two separate forms, the male perching above the female or mounting her, T01820 shows them united along the length of their bodies in such a way as to preserve the integrity of the block; they are separated only at the neck where deep cutting allows the heads to emerge as two upright forms. The severely planar treatment and shallow carving of the remainder (the feet in this version are only lightly incised) suggests that its appearance was probably dictated by the shape of the marble block itself.

The theme of birds and to some extent the treatment may owe something to Brancusi’s carvings of c.1912 (notably ‘Three Penguins’ and the 3rd version of ‘The Kiss’) which Epstein could have seen during his visits to Brancusi’s Paris studio. Certainly T01820 bears comparison with Brancusi in its economy and serenity and in the interplay of simple geometric shapes.

Two sheets of drawings relate to these works. One (coll. Walsall Museum) comprises a pair of doves kissing and another pair copulating. Lady Epstein, in her notes to the plates in Epstein Drawings (Faber 1962), states that these studies were done at Pett Level where Epstein kept birds from which to work. The second sheet (coll. Anthony d’Offay) is one of a group of preparatory drawings connected with the ‘Rock Drill’, dating from c.1913, and it includes a small sketch of one bird perching upon another.

As Epstein did not distinguish the groups clearly one from another by title, it is difficult to establish any early exhibition history for T01820. Although he refers clearly (see above) to ‘the three groups of doves’ made at Pett Level, he exhibited one or more versions under the title ‘Group of Birds’ on various occasions before 1915, (21 Gallery, December 1913–14; Post-Impressionist and Futurist exhibition, Grafton Gallery, 1913; London Group, 1914). There is no firm evidence that this version was exhibited at all.

T. E. Hulme, a close friend and admirer, planned to include photographs of all three Marble Doves in a projected monograph on Epstein. Hulme was killed in 1917 and the manuscript has not been found, but the photographs (professionally taken from various angles against a dark ground) still exist in Hulme’s album (coll. Hull University Library). In his accompanying list Hulme listed the pieces as, respectively ‘Pigeons’, No. 16; ‘Pigeons (marble), Quinn’s’, No. 11 (T01820); and ‘Pigeons’ No.20, and since the photograph of T01820 in the catalogue of the John Quinn Collection (op. cit.) is likewise captioned ‘Pigeons’, the first verifiable reference to the birds as ‘Doves’ would seem to occur with the AAA Sales of 1927.

When Quinn was building up his collection of Epstein sculpture in 1915 he told Ezra Pound of his wish to acquire one of the series. Pound’s advice was ‘if you are still getting Jacob’s “Birds”, for God’s sake get the two that are stuck together, not the pair in which one is standing up on its legs’ (letter of 8 March, 1915; The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907–1941, ed. D. D. Paige, 1950). Quinn duly requested T01820 from Epstein.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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