By MICHAEL CAINES
Any time between now and November 24 would be a good time to find yourself in the vicinity of London’s National Portrait Gallery: head up to Room 33 (the high-ceilinged mezzanine before you get to the Victorians), and there you’ll meet a devil’s dozen of portrait busts by Jacob Epstein, mainly in bronze. It’s quite a party, and entry is free.
Several of the guests are literary men – T. S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, W. H. Davies – among whom Conrad seems to have been most pleased with Epstein’s work, and appears to best effect. This photo doesn’t capture anything like the weird sensation of being able to look him in the eye, as it were, in 1924, the year of his death:
It only enhances the weirdness of the occasion that this wizened grandee perches in a corner with a fuller faced, uneasy Ralph Vaughan Williams on one side of him and a couple of swell large black-and-white photographs on the other. One of these images is of Gina Lollobrigida X 2 – the original is raising a gloved hand as if to ward off Epstein’s curiously unimpressive version of her. I wonder, too, what T. S. Eliot made of what Epstein made of him:
Further signs of interesting sculptor-sitter relationships appear when you turn around and find that young “spiv” (Epstein’s word) Lucian Freud next to you, or Augustus John (looking older than his years), or the NPG’s recently acquired Jawaharlal Nehru (who came by the studio out of curiosity and ended up sitting for Epstein). And at least one sitter always troubled Epstein: himself. Here he is, looking vexed by the whole business, and wearing the cap that the chilliness of his studio obliged him to wear:
Head and shoulders above them all, however, is the great actress Sybil Thorndike, over five feet above the ground, as if on a stage (and as stipulated by the sculptor). In fact, with her eyes fixed on heaven, Thorndike is here playing Saint Joan, the part Bernard Shaw wrote for her, and this further sets her apart from her neighbours; they are Epstein’s impressions of personalities as well as faces, but in this case a third party is present. Whether the third party is the actress or her role is more difficult to say.
At least it is clear what Thorndike thought of the bust: she kept it on a pedestal in her sitting room and praised it as “a perpetual stimulus and inspiration”. Shaw’s wife, by contrast, wouldn’t let him keep his in the house . . . .
Photographs © National Portrait Gallery, London