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Lives Across the Pond: Happy Birthday Sir Jacob Epstein

Each month we feature a person included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography who was either born in the United States, and made their name in the UK, or came to the US from the British Isles. Our second life is Jacob Epstein (the first was Benjamin West), born in November 1880 in New York City, who became one of Modernism’s most celebrated and controversial sculptors.

Sir Jacob Epstein (1880–1959), sculptor, was born on 10 November 1880 at 102 Hester Street, New York City, the second son and third of eight surviving children of Max Epstein (1859–1941), businessman, and his wife, Mary, née Solomon (c.1859–1913). Both parents were from Orthodox Jewish families and had immigrated to the United States from Augustów, Poland, his father changing his name from Jarogenski or Jarudzinski to Epstein …

… Epstein leapt to public prominence in 1908 through the controversy over his carvings on the façade of Charles Holden‘s British Medical Association building in the Strand in London. In the eighteen figures representing the ages of man and woman he fulfilled the architect’s hopes for ‘a programme as wide in scope as Whitman’; austerely classical-realist in style, they nevertheless challenged public taste by frank depictions of nudity and pregnancy …

… Despite his formidable presence and occasional outbursts, his usual manner was quiet and courteous and his conversation wide-ranging and knowledgeable. He never lost his New York accent nor did he ever entirely relinquish a bohemian approach, especially in financial matters which caused him frequent anxiety. At times he seemed to relish and court his position as an outsider—Henry Moore’s tribute was that ‘Epstein took the brickbats for modern art’—but under a show of resilience manifest in his work, he was deeply wounded by critical marginalization and attacks on his work.

Continue reading the Oxford DNB biography of Jacob Epstein

In addition to this biography, the Oxford DNB also offers a free ‘Life of the Day‘ sent daily to your in-box, plus a range of topical lives in our free monthly Reading Room.

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