'Rock Drill': Rediscovering a Lost, Revolutionary Sculpture

Richard Cork
1913: The Shape of Time talks series
16th January 2013

Jacob Epstein
Torso in Metal from 'Rock Drill'

Courtesy of Tate
© The Estate of Jacob Epstein

In this talk, Richard Cork discusses how Jacob Epstein's 'Rock Drill' challenged everyone's ideas about what sculpture might be. Upon seeing it for the first time in December 1913, Epstein's friend David Bomberg never forgot the unnerving impact of the sculpture. He recalled many years later how astonished he felt to see 'perched near the top of the tripod which held the drill, a tense figure operating the drill as if it were a machine gun; a prophetic symbol, I thought later, of the impending war.'

By incorporating a real machine in a work of art, Epstein proved himself just as daring as Marcel Duchamp. But when he first exhibited this version in March 1915, critics recoiled in disgust from the sight of his ghostly driller in white plaster straddling a machine mounted on a tripod base.

The sculpture ignited explosive disagreement between Epstein's friends as well. He remembered that Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 'was very enthusiastic about it when he visited my studio in 1913 with Ezra Pound to view it. Pound started expatiating on the work. Gaudier turned on him and snapped, ''shut up, you understand nothing!'"

At some point in 1915 Epstein decided to sell the drill, chop off the driller's legs, sever his hand and cast the remaining torso in bronze. The original Rock Drill was gone for ever. Yet, Cork argues that this sculpture encapsulates the dramatic, revolutionary moment in which British sculpture first became uncompromisingly modern.

Richard Cork is an award-winning art critic, historian, broadcaster and curator of major exhibitions at Tate, Royal Academy, Hayward Gallery, Barbican Art Gallery and museums elsewhere in Europe. His many books include a ground-breaking study of Vorticism, a pioneering history of Art Beyond The Gallery, a widely-praised monograph on David Bomberg, and A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and The Great War, winner of the Art Fund Award in 1995. Four acclaimed volumes of his critical writings on modern art were published by Yale in 2003, and in 2009 the Royal Academy published the catalogue of his exhibition Wild Thing: Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill. His new book, The Healing Presence of Art, published by Yale in 2012, is a major history of western art in hospitals, ranging from Piero della Francesca and El Greco to Frida Kahlo and Naum Gabo.

An audio recording of this event is available in the Henry Moore Institute Research Library.