Bust of Pandit Nehru
Sir Jacob Epstein
Bronze with a rich dark brown patina
Height: 18 inches (46cm)
Conceived and cast 1948
Sir Jacob Epstein was one of the most important sculptors of the early twentieth century. He was both an outstanding sculptor of monuments and the best portrait sculptor of his day. As one of the pioneers of modern British sculpture, Epstein championed many of the concepts central to modernist sculpture, including ‘truth to material’, direct carving, and inspiration from so-called primitive art.
Epstein was born in New York to Polish-Jewish parents in 1880. At the age of sixteen he attended art classes at the Art Students League and in 1899 went to night school, where he began sculpting under George Grey Bernard. Working as an illustrator, Epstein spent the proceeds of illustrating Hutchins Hapgood’s The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902) on a move to Paris. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Acadèmie Julian and met many of the great artists of the day, and several of those who would soon dominate the contemporary art scene - including Rodin, Brancusi and Modigliani.
Returning to England, Epstein married Margaret Dunlop and became a British citizen. He arrived in London with an introduction from Rodin to George Bernard Shaw and rapidly found himself at once famous and infamous. Epstein’s work often caused public controversy with its strong rough hewn surfaces and explicit sexual content. Early controversial sculptures were the series of nudes for the façade of the medical building on the Strand in 1908, now Zimbabwe House. These were later mutilated under the guise of being potentially hazardous with their extremities dangerously over-hanging the public below.
Epstein received a commission for the Tomb of Oscar Wilde in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris in 1909. His work, based on Wilde’s poem The Sphinx, sparked controversy for its depiction of male genitalia. Finally finished in 1912, the monument was for some time covered by a tarpaulin by the police.
Epstein also experimented with Vorticism and produced probably his most famous sculpture, Rockdrill, in 1915. Now considered one of the greatest sculptures of the twentieth century, it was met with derision by critics and public alike.
In 1928 Epstein received a commission for a sculpture for the front of the new Electric Railways building in Broadway, New York, now part of the St James’s underground station - Day and Night. Once again, the explicit nature of the carving caused great controversy and the sculpture was modified to satisfy public outrage. Henry Moore paid tribute to Epstein saying: ‘He took the brickbats, he took the insults, he faced the howls of derision... and as far as sculpture in this century is concerned, he took them first.’
Despite the controversy of his work, Epstein received many public and private commissions and was honored by The Arts Council with a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1953. He was knighted in 1954. He died in London on 19th August 1959.Jawaharlal ‘Pandit’ Nehru (1889–1964) was the first Prime Minister of India and one of the most important figures in Indian politics before and after independence. Epstein first met Nehru when he visited the United Kingdom for the Commonwealth Conference of 1946. There is a detailed correspondence directly from Epstein, remembering the meeting:
‘He phoned me, although we had never met, expressing a wish to visit me at my studio. Nothing was said about a portrait, but whilst talking to him it occurred to me that we were wasting a rare opportunity and I asked him immediately to start sitting... At this time, soon after the assassination of Gandhi, Nehru seemed burdened with the cares of office, and it was in this mood that I conceived this sombre portrait’.
The critic Stephen Gardiner, also wrote of the meeting in Epstein: Artist Against the Establishment saying:
‘Nehru ended up as a sitter purely by chance; he had never met Epstein, and wanted to see his studio while he was over; he was so keen to do so that he waited half-an-hour for the sculptor, outside before he arrived. As they were talking together, Epstein became interested in his remarkable looks, and realising that a rare opportunity was being wasted, at once asked him to sit. In three days, with a session of one hour only starting at 9 a.m., the head was finished: Epstein called it a sketch, but it was a superb sketch, capturing exactly the Indian delicacy of the subject’s bone structure’
The piece holds great historical importance as Epstein captures the moment that Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, comes to its former ruler’s country. Since Gandhi’s assassination took place around the same time of the sitting, the timing of the sitting is made more tense by the fact we now know Gandhi had recently been assassinated and therefore the portrait becomes all the more poignant and charged with historical and political tension. But it is Epstein’s ability to capture the seriousness of the sitter that is at the centre of the portrait, the artist’s ability to capture the ‘essence’ of his subject.
Another version of the sculpture is in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, also holds a model of this portrait.
This sculpture was displayed in Irving Feldman’s collection, and exhibited in NYC in 1975 (pictured below).