Sir Jacob Epstein

Jacob and the Angel


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Sir Jacob Epstein 1880–1959
Graphite on paper
Support: 580 × 446 mm
Bequeathed by Andrew Burt 2019


In this pencil drawing Epstein depicted two male figures locked in struggle. The foreground figure has his feet firmly planted on the ground but twists his torso to the right in an attempt to destabilise his opponent. The background figure twists one leg around the right leg of the foreground figure and his large spread wings identify him as an angel. Epstein’s dynamic rendering of the two intertwined muscular bodies conveys the physical force applied as they wrestle for supremacy.

The drawing depicts the story of Jacob and the Angel and is a study for Epstein’s monumental alabaster carving of the same name of 1940–1 (Tate T07139). According to the Bible’s book of Genesis (Chapter 32, verses 24–32), Jacob was forced to wrestle with an unknown assailant throughout the night. In the morning, when Jacob’s opponent saw that he was unable to overpower him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip, but Jacob refused to let him go unless he blessed him, realising that he was an angel and messenger from God. Epstein made several drawings to try out ideas for the sculpture, two of which are in the collection of the University of Liverpool. One of these is a horizontal composition in which both figures struggle on the floor; the other is closer to the composition of the current drawing, but the figures are less intertwined. Epstein had been thinking about the subject for nearly ten years – a watercolour of the subject was exhibited in Epstein’s exhibition of illustrations to the Old Testament at the Redfern Gallery, London in 1932 and another drawing of a figure wrestling with a lion was an illustration for Moysheh Oyved’s Book of Affinity in 1933. When first exhibited at the Epstein memorial exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, London in 1960, the drawing was given a date of 1927; this however appears erroneous given the compositional similarities with the Liverpool drawing which has always been dated 1940. The drawing remained with the artist until his death, after which it was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in the exhibition Fifty Years of Bronzes and Drawings by Sir Jacob Epstein in 1960.

The current drawing gives the sense of both a struggle and an embrace as the arms of the two figures lock around the other’s body. This ambiguous relationship informed the final composition of the sculpture where the figures are squeezed close together. This was partly determined by the shape of the block of alabaster, but also has the effect of changing the narrative. Rather than depicting Jacob actively wrestling with the Angel, Epstein focused on a scene close to the end of the wrestling match. There is a sense of the enormous power of the massive figure of the angel who supports Jacob, flexing his legs to do so. Jacob, with injured leg, eyes closed and head thrown back, appears to be close to his last breath as his arms hang limply. In addition to this narrative, Epstein’s interest was also in the abstract qualities afforded by the material properties of the stone. This drawing reveals his creative process showing how the abstracted massive figures of his Jacob and the Angel sculpture were developed through figurative drawing. His ideas for sculpture were often developed by making sketches where figures moved in a fluid and dynamic manner so that he could explore different relationships between them before embarking on the more monumental figures of his carving. Art historian Evelyn Silber has observed that ‘some areas such as Jacob’s back and the angel’s wings can be read abstractly. Epstein’s habitual relish for the subtle interplay of barely perceptible assymetries manifests itself in the cadence of back, buttock, thigh and calf.’ (Silber 1986, p.54.)

Further reading
Fifty Years of Bronzes and Drawings by Sir Jacob Epstein (1880–1959), Leicester Galleries, London, June–July 1960, no.86.
Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Jacob Epstein, Oxford 1986, p.54.

Emma Chambers
June 2019

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