Favourite Sculptures: Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein

Number 1

Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein 1880-1959

Constructed between 1913 and 1915

This sculpture still astounds me, it's so utterly different from virtually all other sculpture from the period. I think it is beautiful with it's elegant lines but at the same time it depicts an ugliness that I associate with war. The humanoid figure strides the actual rock drill like a sentinel on horseback, the angular head with its visor scanning the ground in search of something, possibly me or you. It's very imposing and threatening.  

During it's construction the First World War began but also War of the Worlds, the science fiction novel by English author HG Wells first appeared in serial form in 1897. To me Epstein was referencing both this fictional and the real war in the same work with great success.

The rock drill you see in the picture was the genuine article of the 'machine age' with the American manufacturers number printed on the side, and was in effect a 'readymade' and contemporaneous with Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel. With the added figure on top this piece towered to over three meters tall.

On close inspection one can see a small amorphous shape revealed within the central torso of the figure. Was this suggestive of a new race born to take over from the existing one? Below Epstein gives his own account of the work.......

Writing about the piece in his autobiography he said: “I made and mounted a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into…”
No mention of War of the Worlds there but to me the machine-like robot with long legs and extensions shows strong links with images depicting HG Wells's creation.

Epstein was born in America but became a British Citizen in 1911 after a period spent in Europe. He was not a Vorticist but was closely linked with the movement. Wyndham Lewis the leader of this movement remarked, 'one of the best things he [Epstein] has done. The nerve-like figure perched on the machinery, with its straining to one purpose, is a vivid illustration of the greatest function of life.'

Sadly Epstein dismantled this work, sold the drill and truncated the figure showing a new Torso in Metal in 1916.  This piece can now be seen at Tate Britain.  It's still great but seems only to have half the power of the original, quite literally.

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