Posted: 27th May 2020
The work I’ve chosen as my first object is from the Ferens sculpture collection. It’s a striking half-length nude in bronze called ‘Isabel’ by Jacob Epstein from 1933.
A young woman faces us with a very open body posture. Her pose is confidently relaxed with elbows resting to either side of her and hands lightly crossed over her stomach. She holds herself erect. Shoulder-length hair falls in thick waves behind her ears where 2 coiled serpent earrings drop down to meet her collar bones. Her features are strong and distinctive – large eyes, slanted and heavy- lidded challenges us directly with curious intensity. Though her shoulders and arms are partially draped she is bare breasted. This is a compelling image- uncompromising and unashamed- that suggests power, determination and vitality. Isabel we sense- is a force to be reckoned with.
Because of the sculpture’s undeniable presence I’m drawn to find out more about her.
I’ve recently had the chance to begin to explore this having previously been aware of her as Isabel Rawsthorne – one of Francis Bacon’s sitters.
I was unaware that Epstein’s sculpture records the very beginnings of Isabel’s own artistic career – one since largely eclipsed by her friendships and role as muse to a number of influential artists -not just Bacon and Epstein but also; André Derain, Balthus, Alberto Giacometti and Picasso.
The significance of Rawsthorne’s art is now beginning to be reassessed and the Ferens has recently acquired 4 of her studies in gouache on paper from the artist’s family.
Rawsthorne came from a modest background. She was born in London’s East End in 1912 and brought up in Liverpool. The early death of her father, a mariner, in 1930, left the family penniless. While her Mother emigrated to Canada with a younger brother, she won a scholarship to the Royal Academy art school but could only afford to stay for 6 months. She left due to her financial struggles and was invited to pose by Epstein who offered to let her lodge with him and his wife, whilst continuing her own work.
Epstein was 30 years her senior and married to Margaret Williams- both his work and life flew in the face of convention and caused scandal and hostility in his day. They had no children of their own but Margaret seems to have come to accept that as Epstein couldn’t afford to pay his models he had relationships with them and on occasion children- he had had 4 already by this time- the first child, Peggy Jean lived with them and was brought up as the Epstein’s own.
In 1933, when Epstein made the Ferens bust, Isabel was pregnant with his fifth child who was subsequently also raised by the Epstein’s as their own. This perhaps helps to begin to contextualise the extraordinary power of this sculpture as well as its sensuality and expressive force.
Written by Curator of Art Kirsten Simister
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