Between 1913 and 1915 Jacob Epstein made this remarkable sculpture, Rock Drill, one part of which consists of a figure modelled in plaster.

In its original form, Sir Jacob Epstein's 'The Rock Drill' (1913-1915) Birmingham City Art Gallery © the estate of Jacob Epstein
In its original form, Sir Jacob Epstein's The Rock Drill 1913–15 Birmingham City Art Gallery

The figure is sharp-edged, its limbs square in profile, and its head is a long beak-like armoured visage. The torso has what looks like armoured ribs, and in the abdomen area is an indentation containing an embryonic form.

The extraordinary thing about this mechanised abstracted human figure is that it sat on top of a real miner’s rock drill, with the name of its American manufactuer emblazoned on its side. The whole assembled sculpture was over three metres tall, giving it an amazing brooding and threatening physical presence. Of course, with the enormous drill jutting out from the figure’s loins, it has an extraordinary phallic power about it.

Yet you never quite know whether the figure is the aggressor or the victim, as it’s so dwarfed by this drill that it seems harnessed to it, rather than in control of it.

Writing about the piece in his autobiography Epstein said: “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…”

Sir Jacob Epstein, 'Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill'' 1913-14
Sir Jacob Epstein
Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' 1913-14
object: 705 x 584 x 445 mm
Purchased 1960© The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein

Epstein exhibited Rock Drill at the London Group exhibition in 1915. By the time of its second outing in summer 1916, however, he had dismantled it. He discared the drill, dismembered the figure and cut it in half, leaving a one-armed torso which was then cast, initially in gun metal and ultimately in bronze. Epstein, it seems, took an expression of masculine aggression and then emasculated it. Obvious conclusions may be drawn from the fact that he is doing this at the time of the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun.

Chris Stephens is co-curator of The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World and Curator (Modern British Art) & Head of Displays at Tate Britain. The exhibition runs until 4 September.


I visited Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery yesterday and the rock drill was a Holman (possibly aSilver3) made in Cambourne, Cornwall, not an American machine. I recognised the drill from working with a similar machine, which definitely was a Silver 3, when working in a copper mine in the 1970's

Paul Boddington