With hair swept back like the mane of a lion, Jacob Epstein’s heroic bust of the devilishly charismatic Augustus John captured his ragged likeness better than almost any other portrait.
Epstein, the New Yorker who arrived in England from Paris in 1905 and set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons of British sculpture, had known John since his arrival. By 1916, both figures had cultivated reputations of controversy: Epstein, for his sexually explicit and ‘Primitivist’ style of carving; John, for his immense drawing talents, bohemian dress, and sheer force of personality.
For a sculptor whose visionary public commissions had been summarily covered in tarpaulin, coated in tar, and hacked at by offended ladies with umbrellas, John seemed the perfect subject for a bust. Part-time Romani and full-time brawler, he could be found alternately in calico shirts and paint-crusted overcoats or in rakish dandy garb, complete with well-groomed beard, fine tailored suits, and a jaunty felt hat.
John was himself a famously argumentative portraitist, his sessions fraught with tension. Often he would manipulate models into ungainly poses as he attacked the canvas, his sittings frequently punctuated by harsh barks and outbursts as sitters tried to move into a more comfortable position.
In Epstein’s bust, this dynamic was reversed, leaving it to the sculptor to take on his irascible subject with all his brooding energy: I had wanted to do a head of him for some time, and as he had made two etchings of myself and several drawings, I was eager to do him justice… John’s head had plenty of dignity, but there was much more to it than that, and I wanted to capture a certain wildness, an untamed quality that is the essence of the man…
Completed in sporadic, interrupted sessions, the rapidity and looseness of Epstein’s modelling perfectly channels the vigour of his sitter. From a scrutinising right eye to unkempt hair and the suggestion of a broad, masculine shoulder, John’s character is enlivened with economy and ease.
Neglected for a time, in recent years we have seen a return to interest in Epstein’s work, with sculptures selling for many tens of thousands of pounds. Limited to a tiny edition of just 6 bronze casts, this magnificent bust is a genuine rarity.