Sir Jacob Epstein

Sun God (verso: Primeval Gods)

1910, 1931–1933

Sir Jacob Epstein 1880–1959
Hoptonwood stone
Object: 2134 × 1980 × 355 mm
Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
On long term loan


Sun God depicts a hieratic naked male figure in a frontal pose, carved in relief from a rectangular block, with his outstretched arms and legs extend to its corners. It was carved in Hoptonwood stone in 1910 by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who was at the time working closely with sculptor Eric Gill. The pose of Sun God is related to Gill’s Cocky Kid (Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds) of the same year. Both artists had an interest in the practice of direct carving and celebrating uninhibited sexual expression in art. On the reverse side of the block Epstein carved a group of figures entitled Primeval Gods. This composition includes one larger figure and two smaller ones. The larger figure has been carved in deep relief with imposing square shoulders that take up almost the full width of the block. The two smaller figures are shallower and occupy the torso of the larger figure; in contrast to its fixed, imposing, straight lines, the small figures are more round and appear to cavort.

In 1910 Epstein and Gill had planned to lease Asheham House in Sussex, which Gill described as ‘a sort of twentieth-century Stonehenge’, to make a group of colossal figures together (Silber 1986, p. 21). Although the scheme ultimately fell through, several carvings of this period which address pagan and erotic themes may have been associated with it, including this work and Gill’s Ecstasy 1910–11 (Tate T03477). In the same year Epstein made a series of sculptures influenced by Egyptian art, with the power of the sun as their subject, including Sun Goddess Crouching (Nottingham Castle Museum and Gallery, Nottingham) and Sun Worshipper (Leighton House Museum, London). Sun God was carved at the same time as Epstein began work on the Tomb of Oscar Wilde 1909–12 (Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris) and shares its interest in Egyptian sculptural sources as well as allowing the block to dictate the form of the figure. The Sun God figure appears to grow out of the stone and its hovering position was reused by Epstein for the ‘flying demon angel’ on the Tomb of Oscar Wilde (Cork 2009, pp.29–30).

Epstein returned to the block in 1931, deepening the relief on Sun God and carving Primeval Gods on the other side. The monumental square-shouldered figure of this later sculpture draws on influences from African sculpture in Epstein’s personal collection, but also marks a return to the forms of symbolic figures representing Intellectual Pride, Fame and Luxury which Epstein carved on the headdress of the winged figure of The Tomb of Oscar Wilde. They also relate to his monumental pagan deities of Night and Day 1925 (London Underground Headquarters, London). In the 1930s Epstein’s works were no longer so specifically indebted to non-western sculptural sources and also show his engagement with a younger generation of British sculptors such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

Sun God (verso: Primeval Gods) is notable for the way in which it shows the development of Epstein’s carved sculpture across two decades, his evolving relationship to non-western sculpture, and the links between his work of the 1910s and the 1930, all in a single block. Epstein himself saw a continuity between these two periods, demonstrated both by the way that he returned to themes from his earlier carvings, and by his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, London in 1933, where this work was exhibited alongside carved works from 1910 to 1913. The work documents Epstein’s evolving use of non-Western sculptural sources as well as his engagement with the work of other British sculptors in the 1910s and the 1930s. Between 1910 and 1913 Epstein first responded to non-Western sculptural sources and produced some of the most powerful sculpture of his career. The 1930s and 1940s represent his other great period of carved sculpture during which his knowledge of non-Western art was fully absorbed and he responded to the work of a younger generation of British sculptors.

Further reading
Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein, With a Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1986, pp.21, 48, 127 and 218, cat. nos.26 and 218.
Richard Cork, Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier Brzeska, Gill, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2009, pp.28–30.

Emma Chambers
November 2011

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Display caption

The two sides of this sculpture were carved at different times. Sun God was carved in 1910. It is one of several works by Epstein influenced by Egyptian art, exploring the power of the sun. In 1931 Epstein carved Primeval Gods on the reverse. The massive square-shouldered figure is inspired by reliefs from ancient Assyria (now northern Iraq) and Polynesian figures. Epstein collected sculpture from around the world. He adapted sculptural ideas from these works into his art, without necessarily engaging with their meaning or the specific contexts in which they were made.

Gallery label, April 2021

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