Curator's Choice: The Foundling Museum's Stephanie Chapman on Sir Jacob Epstein's babies

By Ben Miller | 02 February 2015

Curator’s Choice: Stephanie Chapman, Curator of Exhibitions and Displays at The Foundling Museum, on Sir Jacob Epstein: Babies and Bloomsbury

A photo of a woman next to a sculpture
"Our first exhibition of 2015 is on Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), and concentrates on his portraits of children.

Today, Epstein is probably better known for his often controversial public works. But he was also a sought-after portrait sculptor. He completed more than  400 portrait sculptures during his lifetime and sitters included Sir Winston Churchill, TS Eliot and George Bernard Shaw.

However, I think that some of his most remarkable and delightful sculptures are of children, particularly those of his own rather complicated family.

Epstein led an unconventional life, fathering five children from three different women outside his marriage. His incredibly tolerant wife, Margaret, who could not herself have children, brought up two of Epstein’s children as her own.

A photo of a portrait drawing of a little girl
Theodore Garman 'Theo' (1930). Pencil on paper© The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein
Epstein loved children; he enjoyed sculpting them and he enjoyed their company. In his autobiography he wrote: ‘I have always been attracted by children as models for plastic work.

‘I feel that the life of children has hardly been touched upon in sculpture, and this representation is avoided perhaps because of the difficulties that confront an artist who sets out to present a child.

‘For one thing, the child cannot sit still, and to compel a child to be quiet is at once to destroy the spontaneity and charm which lie in its frank and natural expressions.’

Epstein’s first child, Peggy Jean, was born while he and Margaret were living in Bloomsbury. Their house at 23 Guilford Street was just opposite the gates of the Foundling Hospital, and Epstein would have had regular opportunities to see the Foundling children play, parade and exercise within the Hospital grounds.

Epstein was very fond of his first daughter, claiming: ‘To work from a child seemed to me the only work worth doing, and I was prepared to go for the rest of my life looking at Peggy Jean, and making new studies of her.’ The exhibition, which is curated by Gill Hedley, includes seven portraits of Peggy Jean at different stages in her childhood.

While in Bloomsbury, Epstein also began a love affair that was to last for the rest of his life. In 1921 he met the young Kathleen Garman.

A rebel herself, she and her sister had set up in a flat in Regent’s Square, shunning a more conventional life to become part of London’s bohemian sphere.

Epstein and she fell madly in love. He would visit her twice a week bearing flowers, and together they had three children: Theo, Esther and Kitty.

Epstein was not as close to the Garman children, who all took their mother’s surname. The two girls lived for the most part with relatives out of town, and Epstein and Theo’s relationship was difficult. However, he completed studies of them all.

Epstein’s last child, Jackie, was conceived when the sculptor was in his 50s, with Isabel Nicholas, who modelled for him. Epstein affectionately nicknamed his young son ‘Ragamuffin’, and seemed to rediscover the joys of fatherhood.

Margaret again looked after the child as her own.  We are displaying three portraits of Jackie and two drawings in the exhibition.

I believe there are few sculptors who showed such an interest in children and depicted them with such spontaneity, charm and intensity.

Epstein regretted that he had not done more of this work, claiming in 1940 that ‘I plan someday to do only children.

‘I think I should be quite content with that, and not bother about the grown-ups at all.’”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a dark bronze sculpture of a child's face in profile
Baby Asleep (1904). Bronze© The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein. Photo: Leeds Museums and Art Galleries (City Museum)
A photo of a thick bronze sculpture of a young woman with curly hair looking upwards
First portrait of Kitty (Kitty with Curls) (1944). Bronze© The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein
More from Culture24's coverage of Babies and Bloomsbury:

Maps and family trees help trace Jacob Epstein in Babies and Bloomsbury show at The Foundling Museum

Sir Jacob Epstein: Babies and Bloomsbury (video Curator's Choice with Gill Hedley)
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