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Artists

Jacob Epstein

(b New York, 10 Nov 1880; d London, 19 Aug 1959). British sculptor of American birth. Although he spent his childhood in New York, Epstein defined his identity as an artist only after moving to London in 1905. He had studied at the Arts Students League in New York before moving to the Académie Julien in Paris. His first two years in London remain relatively obscure, but in 1907 the architect Charles Holden invited him to execute a major commission for the new headquarters of the British Medical Association in The Strand (now Zimbabwe House). Holden and Epstein were united by their enthusiasm for Walt Whitman’s poetry, and they agreed that 18 large figures should be carved for the building’s façade, celebrating nakedness in the spirit of Whitman’s poems. Epstein himself announced that the scheme would celebrate ‘the great primal facts of man and woman’, and he managed to fuse the ‘medical’ side of the commission with his own most personal preoccupations: erotic delight, mortality, motherhood, virility and above all an uninhibited celebration of humanity in dignified nakedness. The National Vigilance Society, affronted by his figure of Maternity, started a vituperative press campaign to have the carvings removed. The assault nearly succeeded, and Epstein became notorious. However, the combined support of eminent artists, critics and museum directors saved the statues for the time being, although they were severely mutilated 20 years later, when the building’s disapproving new owners declared that their condition was unsafe.

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