Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Study for Slave Hold

Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), 1941

Object number 1963.P.39

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Study for Slave Hold

Bolton Museum and Archive Service purchased Study for Slave Hold directly from the artist in 1954. Documentary photographs show Epstein at the official opening of the exhibition 'Portraits in Bronze', in which Study for Slave Hold provided a dramatic centrepiece.

The subject of this work first took shape in an expressionistic drawing by the artist in which the figures of hundreds of slaves are depicted imprisoned in an inhumanly cramped space. It is difficult to see how Epstein’s sketch could have been realised in sculpture, except perhaps as a relief.

In fact, the project got no further than this unique double bust; Slave Hold was abandoned unfinished. In spite of its incomplete state this piece has an imposing nature, linking the sculptor’s ambitious vision with the compelling subject of human slavery.

It is unclear what led Epstein to approach the subject of slavery, but it is known that he was heavily influenced and inspired by African art. He was prominent in the anti-fascism movement and exhibited with the left-wing Artists International Association throughout the 1930s; the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 may have been an influence on this piece. As a Jew, he may also have seen parallels between the slave trade, and the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Or perhaps he was simply seeking a project that would allow him to pursue new and ambitious technical challenges. The fact is we may never know why he planned such a bold assault on this topic.

This information was provided by curators from Bolton Museum and Archive Service.