Jacob and the Angel 1940-1 Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959 Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation 1996 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07139
Every time I go to the Tate I have to look at this sculpture for a long time. For a time while I was a student there, it was in the Tate Liverpool and it had the power to scandalise one ancient visitor to my student flat.
Mr Brady was of indeterminate age – how can you tell under unkempt facial hair, grime, an overcoat, tied with string at the waist, that looked as though it had made its own way home, across time and Flanders, from the Somme? Mr Brady arrived at teatime, refused any sort of hot meal, but could always be tempted with a big slab of cake. He smelled quite bad and consequently, even in very cold weather, it was problematic to have him sitting too near the portable gas heater that we trundled from room to room as condensation dripped down the windows and walls. We fed him and dubbined his boots and in return were given a hearty ‘Hebrew blessing’ as he called it, standing on the front step with his arms outstretched, intoning ‘Aaahhh! Rubadubadubadub!’ into the evening air. For sure, he was a scouser. He had plenty of stories about Liverpool ‘in the old days’, of picking up pennies down at the Pier Head, girls with skirts so short it would make your eyes water and, best of all, the dead man who sat bolt upright one night in the hospital morgue.
Mr Brady was mortified by the sight of a naked alabaster angel locked in an embrace with a naked alabaster man. In fact, it really upset him. Quite right. Imagine what those huge wings would feel like as you tried to ply yourself free of the bird man’s grasp. Imagine having the air squeezed from your lungs by a manifestation of the almighty. Imagine being naked before your worst fear.
Mr Brady was tall, heavily built (I think – he never took his coat off) and he clumped in and out of our cramped, grotty flat with a precarious heftiness. He didn’t always turn up at a convenient moment – once he settled in an hour before a concert I was playing in was due to start and watched me iron my dress. He ate my 21st birthday cake in almost a single sitting and he left behind the lingering stench of errant urine. Mr Brady almost certainly didn’t have wings (though, as I say, he never took his coat off), but there was something about him that was profoundly challenging.
I don’t think Mr Brady was an angel, but he was a presence worth wrestling with.