Our theme is spectacles for this fourth instalment of our conversation with Cubitts: The Modern Spectacle Maker. We take a close look at Jacob Epstein’s glasses, given to the Archive of Sculptors’ Papers in his original toolbox.
Errin Hussey (Archivist, Henry Moore Institute): As soon as we heard about the theme of spectacles, this came to mind straight away. We’re really lucky to have this toolbox – it came as it is from Jacob Epstein’s studio. We have all his tools and all the materials, but the addition of his glasses gives it a very personal touch. Just seeing what he would have looked through...
Cubitts: Do we know the reason for the 'K' in the toolbox?
Errin: Strangely, we have no idea – it was not in any of the paperwork when it came in.*
Cubitts: So it’s just a found object?
Cubitts: How interesting.
* while the 'K' hasn't been documented in paperwork, it could relate to Kathleen Garman who became Epstein's second wife, or one of their three children, Kitty.
Cubitts: What do we know about sculptors and spectacles?
Errin: Not too much, although it is an interesting one. I haven’t seen many sculptures depicting spectacles. There are so many portrait busts, but it doesn't seem like spectacles are ever part of them. If you think of someone like Winston Churchill, many people remember him with glasses, but there are not many sculptures that show him wearing them.
Cubitts: When you look back into older literature, spectacles were a sign of wisdom and knowledge – it’s interesting that no one thought to include them in sculpture. Even going back as far as Ancient Greece, you’d never see a sculpture wearing spectacles, even though it was seen as a sign of academia. It’s very similar to modern day – most celebrities take their spectacles off when they go down the red carpet so you don’t see anyone famous today wearing them either.
Errin: Is Cubitts influenced by sculpture?
Cubitts: We’re most influenced by modernist sculptors, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. You’ll see it come through in collection themes with the use of an organic curve or geometry. Pretty much every collection has some form of influence from sculpture, art or design, and that’s really important for us.
Our Jacob Epstein Collection
Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) is a sculptor best known for his monuments and portraits. He championed ‘truth to material’, the belief that artwork should reflect the material in which it is made, and direct carving, the practice of creating sculpture without the aid of sketches or models.
There are 28 boxes in our Jacob Epstein archive, each containing sketches, exhibition posters, press cuttings and more. A large presence in the Epstein holdings are the photographs showing his extensive career and developing sculptural styles. These images are especially important when thinking about projects such as his 1908 carvings on the British Medical Association building, which were eventually destroyed because there was a backlash about their perceived obscenity.
Throughout his career Epstein pushed boundaries. In 1913 he created the sculpture Rock Drill, that depicted an intimidating figure operating a drill below him. Epstein used real machinery as part of the sculpture and exhibited the piece in 1915 to reflect Britain at the outbreak of World War One.
Another popular but controversial work by Epstein was Rima, a sculpture made as a memorial to the writer and naturalist, W. H. Hudson. The work drew inspiration from Hudson’s novel Green Mansions, but the final piece was heavily criticised for its portrayal of nudity. The Archive of Sculptors’ Papers is lucky to hold Epstein’s large-scale, original sketches for this piece and a page from these sketches can be seen on display at the Leeds Art Gallery as part of their exhibition, Shifting Perspectives.
In 1953 the Arts Council held a retrospective of his work at Tate and in 1954 he was awarded a knighthood, five years before his death in 1959. There is much more to uncover in the Jacob Epstein archive, which provides an insight into the career of a fascinating sculptor.
Visiting the Archive of Sculptors' Papers
The archive is open via prior appointment only, Tuesday to Friday, 10am-5pm.
Jacob Epstein's toolbox, a collection of items relating to the life and work of Jacob Epstein, c.1902-1973. Ref. No. 36.1988. Courtesy of Leeds Museums & Galleries (Henry Moore Institute’s Archive of Sculptors’ Papers).
Photos: Joanne Crawford