Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham

1 portrait on display in Room 33 at the National Portrait Gallery

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, by Sir Jacob Epstein, 1923 -NPG 4220 - Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London

Photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham

by Sir Jacob Epstein
Bronze, with artificial brown patination, 1923
18 1/8 in. (460 mm overall)
NPG 4220


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This portraitback to top

‘Imagine Don Quixote walking about your studio and sitting for his portrait!’ wrote Jacob Epstein in his autobiography. ‘This was R.B. Cunninghame Graham, and you could see him on horseback any day in Hyde Park on his small American mustang, seated in a high saddle, riding along Rotten Row in a bowler hat. He was no poseur, as many imagine. His distinguished appearance and bearing were natural. No man with easier manners, more debonair and courteous.’[1]

The sculptor emphasized his model’s worn, lop-sided features and broken nose and expressed their irregularities in a broken ‘impasted’ surface.[2] ‘In the head I modelled he seems to sniff the air, blowing from the Sierras, and his hair is swept by a breeze from afar.’[3] Sculptor and sitter engaged well, and there was a further connexion: Graham was the chairman of the W.H. Hudson Memorial Committee and Epstein’s champion throughout the controversial sculpture commission (Rima, Hyde Park, 1923–5).

After Epstein’s death in August 1959 the National Portrait Gallery approached his executors and purchased a self-portrait.[4] In fact the Trustees had been actively collecting Epstein’s work since the late 1930s, and five portraits by him, including NPG 4220, were acquired in the 1950s and 1960s.[5]

In March 1961 the sculptor’s widow Kathleen contacted the Gallery with a list of busts still left in the studio. A selection of seven plaster casts was shown at the Trustees’ meeting in June. Interest was expressed in obtaining bronzes of two of them – R.B. Cunninghame Graham and Admiral Lord Fisher – if the price could be lowered from £500 a piece. ‘What a sad little letter!’ was Lady Epstein’s response. ‘Yours is certainly the Cinderella among galleries. I know you have no funds to speak of […] However let us meet & see what could be achieved & which plasters your trustees are interested in. My trustees will not allow me to sell below a certain figure as the editions are running out & these works can always obtain good prices elsewhere. But you know my predilection for having the works in their proper setting in your gallery’.[6] She wanted the sculptures to enter the national collection and facilitated negotiations. Shortly afterwards she offered a bronze cast of Graham at the revised price of £300, and this was gratefully accepted.[7]

The year NPG 4220 was acquired, 1961, was a time of heightened awareness of Epstein’s work. There were the memorial exhibitions at the Edinburgh Festival and Tate Gallery; the Bowater House Group (1959) was erected in Hyde Park; and Kathleen presented 200 plaster casts to the Jerusalem Museum of Art.[8].

There was an edition of nine bronzes of Graham’s head. NPG 4220 was cast in 1961, and given a polished limestone base. Collections with bronzes cast in Epstein’s lifetime include Manchester Art Gallery (1925.415); Aberdeen Art Gallery (ABDAG004611); the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (PG.1363); Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow (S290); and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.[9] There is no evidence that Graham himself owned any of the casts.

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) Epstein 1955, p.88.
2) ‘It is always necessary to accentuate some particular trait that gives the character to the face and distinguishes it from other faces. A man is an artist because he has the necessary judgement and skill to know what accentuation is necessary […] It is the rough surface that gives both character and likeness to the face […] the face is made up of numberless small planes and it is a study of where those planes begin and end, their direction, that makes the individual head.’ Haskell 1931, pp.67, 78.
3) Epstein 1955, pp.88–9.
4) See NPG RP 4126.
5) See also W.H. Davies (NPG 3885), G.B. Shaw (NPG 4047), J. Epstein (NPG 4126) and J. Conrad (NPG 4159).
6) Letter from Lady Epstein to C.K. Adams, 26 June 1961, NPG RP 4220.
7) Letter from Lady Epstein to C.K. Adams, [July 1961], NPG RP 4220. The price paid for a bronze cast of the Epstein self-portrait (NPG 4126) in December 1959 was £300. The Graham plaster head was destroyed in 1982.
8) Gardiner 1992, pp.476–7.
9) Silber 1986, p.154, no.145.

Physical descriptionback to top

Bronze head on a stone base.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1995.

Provenanceback to top

Purchased from Lady Epstein, the artist's widow, 1961.

Exhibitionsback to top

Return to Life: A New Look at the Portrait Bust, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds; NPG, London; and Scottish NPG, Edinburgh, 2000–2001 (28).

Reproductionsback to top

Woodcut by A. Horace Gerrard, c.1923.

Reproduction after NPG 4220
Curtis, Funnell & Kalinsky 2000, p.19.

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