With an ironic nod to the fickle twists of critical opinion, Jacob Epstein's magnificent alabaster carving Jacob and the Angel, which now graces the central sculpture hall of Tate Britain, was originally rejected by the Tate Gallery and scoffed at in a Blackpool freak show, where holiday crowds paid threepence for an adults-only showing of the controversial sculptor's latest sensation. Changes in artistic fortune do not come more clearly signposted.
Epstein is now widely recognised as a seminal figure in the history of 20th- century art but, whilst his powerful and innovative sculptures were celebrated by contemporary mavericks such as Ezra Pound and Augustus John, they provoked hostility and censure among the artistic and social establishment. Monumental in scale compared to anything else being carved, brave in their treatment of sex, death and religion, these sculptures made an irresistible impact on a medium that was still then regarded as merely decorative or commemorative. Throughout his life, as June Rose's absorbing new biography shows, Epstein was never far from the most damning criticism.
His first major commission, 18 statues for the old British Medical Association headquarters in the Strand, was greeted as "indecent and inartistic" and later mutilated; on the other side of the Channel, his tomb of Oscar Wilde was banned. The Risen Christ, his first specifically religious work, was a described as a "wicked travesty", from which John Galsworthy and many others retreated with clenched fists; and his Rock Drill (1913-15) - the most adventurous work of its kind yet viewed in Britain and also the first mass-produced item to go on display in an art gallery - was, quite simply, "sculpture gone crazy".
Seldom has the shock of the new been felt quite so sharply, and seldom has an artist's work polarised public opinion in such an intense and fanatical way. That Rose succeeds in negotiating her way through this storm of outrage and emotion is just one of the many qualities of a fine study, which also serves as an account of how artistic freedom emerged in Britain, and the attendant fear, excitement and prejudice.
Born in 1880 on the Jewish East Side of New York, Epstein enrolled in his first art school at the age of 13, against strong paternal opposition. His early struggles in America and later in Paris are explored fully here for the first time, as Rose draws on many hundreds of unpublished letters and interviews. Epstein's dependence on a series of patrons, his volatile relationship with his adopted home (England), his reluctant conscription to fight in the Great War are also well documented, as are his remarkable domestic arrangements with his wife and lovers alike. Rose writes of Epstein's "ability to extract extraordinary devotion from his extraordinary women". The impact of public triumphs and humiliations on his tangled and complex private life makes for compelling reading.
Despite public abuse, Epstein unwaveringly treated art as a heroic vocation. "I feel that I can do the best, most profound things and life is short," he wrote to his dealer in 1910. "How I wish I was living in an age when man wanted to raise temples to man or God or the Devil." His ambition "to carve mountains", and a very un-English belief in his right to do so, sustained him through the early orchestrated opposition to his work, and through the difficult, anti-Semitic years between the wars, when his sculpture was daubed with swastikas.
At his death, in 1959, Epstein had mellowed, as had the climate in which he worked. He was knighted in 1954; today, his sculpture, drawings and other work are to be found in museums and art galleries the world over. His contribution to British art cannot be disputed, nor can his influence on Gaudier-Brzeska, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. No other sculptor in this country had such immediacy of touch or could convey the mood of his sitter quite as potently as Epstein.
In the first monograph ever published on him (Epstein, 1920), and with the self-righteous zeal so characteristic of those who champion contemporary art, Bernard van Dieren wrote: "The world does not forgive talent." In this biography, Epstein's great talent is not just forgiven, but also genuinely understood.
Nicola Upson is the author of Mythologies: the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld (Overlook Press)