Jacob Epstein and Blackpool

Midway through its showing at Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery is the insightful, Jacob Epstein and Blackpool exhibition. This display tells the story of the controversial sculptor Jacob Epstein and his ground-breaking statue ‘Adam’, which was displayed in the holiday town throughout the summer of 1939. The exhibition examines through the media of press clippings, photography, film and ephemera how this controversial decision would generate a relationship between the artist and town spanning over twenty years.

Often denigrated in his own time, Jacob Epstein and Blackpool seeks to demonstrate how in many ways the perceived ‘uneducated and uncouth’ northern holiday resort was more receptive to Epstein’s ideas than the conservative art intelligentsia. Moreover, the exhibition shows how Blackpool went further to solidify Epstein’s lasting position as genius at a time when few institutions would display his work.

The exhibition is contained in one room, with national and regional newspaper articles lining the walls, photographs and advertisements of the statue’s move up north, and a screen showing clips of the exhibition opening. What is noticeable is that there are no easily summarised panels throughout the exhibition, instead the display opens with a hypothesis outlined in the foyer: that the initial motive of the showman Lawrence Wright to display ‘Adam’ in Blackpool was a commercial and challenging one, designed to bring high culture (and its paying art lovers) to the northern mass. The hypothesis acknowledges the lasting legacy these showings have acquired for ridiculing and debasing artworks that are now considered masterpieces of the 20th century, referring to subsequent showings of Epstein’s works amongst a background of sideshow oddities in Louis Tussaud’s. While this may have been the undignified end of Epstein’s association with the town, the exhibition returns to look at the original idea and the strength of the relationship the town cultivated with Epstein before it was unceremoniously destroyed by one local entrepreneur.

The choice to bring Epstein’s work to the north was the work of Lawrence Wright, musician, producer and showman of the 1930s who had links to Blackpool through his production, ‘On With The Show’ which performed on North Pier. Wright secured the rights from the then anonymous owner, Charles Stafford, to display ‘Adam’, Epstein’s magnum opus to date, throughout the summer of 1939. An empty shop in the heart of the town was quickly re-branded ‘Lawrence Wright’s Art Gallery’. Admission was to be set at 1s, although was raised to 2s initially to deter ‘peeping Toms’ and mischief-makers from the opportunity to poke fun at the naked Adam.

Epstein’s colossal ‘Adam’ is made of Derbyshire alabaster and weighs 3 tons. The bulky and candid figure of Adam is an altogether different representation of God’s first man than traditional art had hitherto purported. Thrusting his arms back in anticipation of the human race, the figure captures the energy of life and beyond. Speaking on ‘Adam’ Epstein said, ‘“I certainly consider this is my best work up to now […] It is definitely a religious work in which I have tried to express something which is elemental, embracing the earth, the stars, the sea, life itself and the whole mighty history of creation.”’ Whether or not the holiday crowds of Blackpool saw this very picture is beside the point. It is that they were given the chance to see it. And certainly from the opinions and comments gathered and written up in the newspapers, the northern crowds were just as capable of appreciating this controversial modern art. One woman remarked: ‘“It made me shiver at first, but I soon began to see its real beauty. After all I had heard about the statue I was prepared to be shocked, but although it rather took my breath away I must say that I can see nothing objectionable about it.”’ By showing ‘Adam’ in Blackpool the boundaries of the art world had shifted, opening ‘high culture’ up to the masses.

What is striking from the clippings on display is that from the very beginning Wright was trying to play down suggestions that ‘Adam’ was to be featured as a sideshow act. The very first article on display anticipates that this ‘latest work of the most discussed sculptor of the day will appeal to the public and no doubt students from all parts of the country will come to Blackpool to see it.’

However, Epstein publicly denounced this decision to show his work: ‘“I do not like the idea of my statue being put up as a sideshow.”’ But this was not going to deter Wright, who had hoped that Epstein would make the journey to Blackpool to unveil the exhibition. Wright used the press to his advantage, assuring that the sculpture would be ‘presented with every possible dignity of atmosphere and setting.’ Where previously the statue had been shown in London and observed in silence, in Blackpool it was to be exhibited as ‘an orchestra [plays] “soft music” of Mr Lawrence Wright’s own compositions’ as well as being exhibited with dark drapes. Furthermore, he announced that ‘Adam’ was to be shown as the centrepiece in a collection of other internationally recognised artworks, including Raphael’s ‘Holy Family’.

Finally convinced that his work was to be shown ‘in a manner befitting [‘Adam’s’] religious and artistic significance’, Epstein gave his full backing to the decision to show his work in Blackpool. This is the turning point in the exhibition where the relationship reaches a harmonic plateau; the motive becomes less about money and controversy and more about the appreciation and accessibility of art. Wright affirms in The Star, ‘“I want the people of Blackpool and the North to have the same opportunity that London has of seeing for themselves this striking product of Epstein’s genius.”’ The exhibition becomes, very usefully, embroiled in a class war. Wright’s assertion of sincerity seems to have affected Epstein profoundly as he began to backtrack on his previous denouncement. In the Daily Worker Epstein is quoted as saying, ‘“Art is for everybody or it is nothing. My statues are not just for the intellectuals of London […] I am sure that Blackpool holiday makers will at least be more honest critics than the privileged poseurs of the West End.”’ In addition Epstein allowed the display of 14 of his bronze sculptures including busts of a young Paul Robeson and Haile Selassie (the former Emperor of Ethiopia). The latter was even connected to rumours of an invitation to the exhibition opening. Although these rumours were later refuted they highlight how Wright had generated a media storm; for the first time ever all eyes were on Blackpool and its art.

The publicity was not just beneficial for Blackpool, but also for Epstein. As if overnight he had gone from a pariah of the art world to a genius. The Tate had always refused his art, something which had been the bane of Epstein’s existence for long enough, causing him to lash out: ‘“I think the trustees of the Tate Gallery are lacking both in imagination and initiative.”’ Wright on the other hand had identified the mutual benefits of taking a gamble and showing such controversial art in Blackpool. Epstein would even come to relish the display in the north west, and Wright’s forward-thinking objectives. ‘“I think that showmanship like this might do a great deal for art” Epstein is quoted as saying, “Why should all our art treasures always be hidden away in art galleries which comparatively few people take the trouble to visit?”’ Epstein was responding to the 20,000 visitors ‘Adam’ received daily in the summer of 1939, as opposed to the few thousand that visited national museums. Indeed, on display as it was from 8am to midnight daily, the floor of the shop eventually began to give way and remedial work had to be taken to reinforce the floor so that it could take the weight of 35,000 visitors as well as the 3 ton statue.

The relationship between town and artist had changed, particularly on Epstein’s part. This became apparent when he arrived in Blackpool to open the exhibition in July 1939. No longer cautious, he seemed to put his faith in Wright and the two became as friends. The press clippings capture every minute twist and turn of this fascinating relationship and are quick to take up any leads about Wright commissioning Epstein to make an ‘Eve’ for ‘Adam’. Epstein accepted the offer of £15,000, which almost seems a gesture of thanks to Wright, for putting him on the map. Wright’s affiliation with the art world does not just seem a commercial dalliance, but rather a deeper appreciation. He is quoted as saying, ‘“[Epstein] should be recognised while he lives and reap the benefits of his work […] Too many great artists, musicians, sculptors have died in penury. I do not intend that this shall be Epstein’s fate.”’ There was even a hint in the papers that Epstein had extended an offer to sculpt a bust of Wright. Blackpool had done wonders for Epstein’s status, and ‘Adam’ was already lined up to tour the World’s Fair in America. At the pinnacle of such a relationship, it is hard to see how we have come to view these public showings as derogatory.

Following the popularity of Epstein in Blackpool Wright began to espouse his masterplan that this would be the start of an Epstein collection, which would remain always in Blackpool. The collection did keep growing but relations were never quite the same. In 1942 another of Epstein’s colossal and controversial works, ‘Jacob and the Angel’ began its display in Blackpool which would last for 2 years. In 1958, ‘Adam’s’ spiritual mother, ‘Genesis’ was put up for auction by the owner Sir Alfred Bossom. Bossom, persuaded by Epstein, had previously attempted to give the statue to the Tate who were still unenthused by Epstein’s success and status and refused to accept it. It was therefore Bossom’s belief that as many people as possible should see ‘Genesis’ and it was auctioned at Sotheby’s.

The successful bidder was William Cartmell of Louis Tussauds, situated on Blackpool promenade. Cartmell secured the right to show ‘Genesis’ for a mere £4,200. Epstein, by now on his deathbed, was horrified at the news; the low price of which seemed a particular insult as he claimed the Tate could not find even such a low amount to purchase his work yet could easily afford near on £20,000 to acquire a Cezanne.

Lady Epstein, who had been present at the auction, rushed to speak to Cartmell after bidding had finished. He is reported to have said, ‘“I’ve never been to Sotheby’s before. I’m more used to going round the murder trials to get ideas for the Chamber of Horrors at the waxworks.”’ This infuriated the sculptor further who must have felt as though his initial fears had come true, 20 years later: “What I object to is that it has been bought by these people who will show it in a cheapjack and vulgar manner. Any artist would be upset to have his work subjected to this sort of indignity.”’

‘Genesis’ eventually joined ‘Adam’, ‘Eve’, ‘Jacob and the Angel’ and ‘Consumatum Est’ in amongst a collection of anatomical and freakshow oddities at Louis Tussaud’s during the Easter season of 1958, where 10,000 visitors were expected daily. It is easy to see, given how much coaxing Wright had done to persuade Epstein that his art would be presented in a dignified manner, how Epstein would have felt betrayed. However, Cartmell maintained that when asked what he thought of the commonly held belief that ‘Genesis’ is crude and rude he replied, ‘“I don’t agree. I am keenly interested in Epstein’s work.”’

Unfortunately it seems as if his keen interest for Epstein’s statues and that of murder trials, were one and the same thing. In 1961 Cartmell sold the Epstein collection, along with 65 of his etchings, to America for £30,000. On hearing this Lawrence Wright’s parting words were, ‘“It seems all wrong. But there is nothing I can do to stop them going to America.”’ Perhaps because of his own involvement with the arts, Wright seemed to understand and appreciate the value of art and the genius of the artist. This is something Cartmell was lacking, and as such paved the way for the exploitation of Epstein’s work and the sudden deterioration of a relationship which had once been so strong.

It is too simplistic to view these showings as derogatory, especially in the light of such a long and fruitful relationship. This exhibition offers the chance to refute this reputation, but does so reservedly by offering a comprehensive view of the media coverage. I appreciated the way there were no panels to read, which meant that I did not feel as though my opinion was being directed, and allowed me to focus on the primary texts. But occasionally I did feel a little unsure as to what the ‘facts’ were, and in particular the details after Wright’s involvement with the collection were a little hazy.

This exhibition means a lot to me, as a resident of the seaside town. Had we managed to hang on to such a ground-breaking and modern collection, the town (which still does not have its own museum) might have developed culturally much faster than it has. Even if you do not have any ties to the resort, I would still recommend going to see this exhibition which reads almost like a tragic romance, but that still gives a bit of a thrill to think of the media coverage surrounding such a small but spirited town.

Jacob Epstein and Blackpool shows alongside another free display, Extra Ordinary, which takes several artworks from the Saatchi collection, including internationally acclaimed artists such as Simon Patterson and Nina Konnemann.

The aim of the exhibition is to show how the everyday can be storehouse of excitement and mystery. It reflects on Blackpool’s rich past of sideshows, magic acts and the bizarre, and is an excellent compliment to the former display. It is a mixed media exhibition including film and photography and some awe-inspiring pieces such as Brian Griffiths’ ‘Beneath the Stride of Giants’.

Although a very small gallery, the Grundy has a lot to make you stop and think. These exhibitions are on until the middle of September so if you fancy a day out at the seaside, give yourself plenty of time to stop and absorb the culture.

‘Jacob Epstein and Blackpool’ and ‘Extra Ordinary’

Grundy Art Gallery, Queen Street, Blackpool, FY1 1PX

26 June – 11 September 2010


Open Monday – Saturday 10am – 5pm

Bank holidays 11am – 4pm

See website for more information.

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