Jacob Epstein | Heroic Torso | Coventry Cathedral
On display for the very first time in the UK, Jacob Epstein’s magnificent Heroic Torso will be one of the centrepieces of Coventry Cathedral’s exhibition Stories in Stone from 19th March 2022 to 31st May 2022.
By 1954 Epstein’s work had begun to receive ever-greater approval from his peers and the wider public sphere; the enfant terrible of British sculpture – a role he still inhabited at the grand age of 74 – had been deemed by many to have ‘grown up’, and a knighthood shortly followed the honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford extended to him the year before.
This post-war period was dominated by huge, monumental sculptures, works that were now so great in height that Epstein’s studio in Hyde Park Gate could no longer fully house them and which were soon relocated to larger premises on Exhibition Road at the invitation of the Royal College of Art.
Shortly before the move, Lord Woolton had approached Epstein with a commission from the directors’ of Lewis’s for their Liverpool department store. The city had been devastated by the bombing runs of The Blitz, with the Lewis’s shopfront being leveled in 1941, and it was generally felt that local services and businesses had never quite fully recovered from the upheaval. Epstein’s task was to revitalize the withered spirit of Merseyside and return something of the city’s former glory.
Woolton’s brief was undoubtedly fulfilled: Liverpool Resurgent, a strident, muscular figure stood atop the prow of a ship, answered Lewis’s directorial board with perhaps more vigour than they might have intended, a select few critics even suggesting that the unbridled eroticism of the figurehead would cause passing schoolgirls to swoon.
Certainly the work caused a stir amongst the Merseysiders at its 1956 unveiling. The Liverpool Echo reported that the statue personified a resplendent ‘Liverpool rising from the flames of war’ while locals, adopting the sculpture’s location as a convenient meeting spot, affectionately termed the well-endowed figure ‘Dickie Lewis’.
More recent receptions of the work have seen in it a likeness to the thrusting advances of Soviet socialist realism, or – in the words of Richard Buckle’s catalogue raisoneé – ‘a Khmer angel with Tony Curtis hair.’ (p. 379) Where there is consensus is in the sense of spectacle and magnitude of Epstein’s commission, in the evidence in these later large works of his ability to capture force, heart and movement at scale, and in Liverpool Resurgent’s particular importance as a symbol of vital, heroic youth for a post-war generation.