Bust of Jacob Kramer
Jacob Epstein was born in 1880 to relatively prosperous Polish-Jewish émigré parents, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He worked at a New York Bronze foundry and studied modelling at the Art Students’ league (1901 –2), before sailing for Paris, where he studied for 18 months. In 1905 he moved to London and settled in Chelsea, received vital early backing from Jewish patrons, Alfred and Rudolf Kohnstamm, through his friendship with Alfred Wolmark. Between 1912 and 1914 he established important links with other ‘Whitechapel Boys’, particularly David Bomberg and Mark Gertler.
From his first public commission for the British Medical Association’s building in The Strand, Epstein’s career was always mired in controversy, partly because of the uninhibited sexuality of his figures and his lasting interest in the non-Western (and often mixed-race) model. However, his portraiture was always highly prized. Epstein’s head of Leeds-born painter Jacob Kramer (there are also casts at the Tate and Leeds City Art Gallery) captures his sitter’s famous nervous energy and restlessness. Epstein wrote to Kramer to encourage him to come to London to sit for the portrait after November 1920. He later recalled that Kramer ‘was a model who seemed to be on fire. He was extraordinarily nervous. Energy seemed to leap into his hair as he sat, and sometimes he would be shaken by queer trembling like ague. I would try to calm him so as to get on with the work’. Epstein scholar Evelyn Silber has cited the work as ‘the portrait of one outstanding Jewish contributor to British modernism by another [which] sees both close to the peak of their creative energies’.
Epstein was only finally accepted by the establishment five years before his death when he was knighted in 1954.
Ben Uri owns six works (the earliest dating from 1931) by Epstein, who was a noted Patron of the Society from 1936–37. He first exhibited in the Opening of the Ben Uri Jewish Art Gallery and an Exhibition of Works by Jewish Artists at Woburn House in 1934. Ben Uri subsequently held a number of retrospectives including an Exhibition of Bronzes in 1959; a Centenary Exhibition in 1980; and Embracing the Exotic: Jacob Epstein and Dora Gordine in 2006. A special Epstein day tour around London led by Richard Cork was also held on 19 August 2009 to mark the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death.