Head without a Story
by Klaus Christian Hofer
Remember Purtzel? It is a mystery indeed. This bronze head is very reluctant to reveal its secret. (See Echo Germanica August 2001)
This intriguing British face, eternalized in bronze, is the enigma. On March 1, 1920 it spilled from the hull of the SS. Bohemian as she wrecked and sank off the coast of Nova Scotia. For the next 55 years, this bronze bust collected barnacles about 95 feet beneath the surface, while peacefully resting against a winch, until a young salvage diver brought it to the surface. That was in the summer of 1975. For the next 26 years Mr. Unknown served as a book-stop in the comfortable home of a friend – and yet, this book-stop may be packing a story worth telling in a book itself.
Is it the work of a famous artist? A reader who read "Head without a Story" in the August edition called Echo Germanica and suggested that it could be the work of Sir Jacob Epstein, a New York born painter and sculptor (1880-1959), who built his artistic career in London. In 1954 Epstein was knighted and became a world famous sculptor. During his career he was commissioned to prepare busts of Albert Einstein, George Bernhard Shaw, or the famous pianist and Bach specialist Rosalyn Tureck, just to mention a few.
Although I consider it a remote chance that Epstein crafted the bust recovered from the Bohemian, it certainly would have been his style. See for yourself:
On the left is a bust of Rosalyn Tureck, while on the right the bust recovered from the shipwreck. The styles are largely similar, but other questions remain.
The bust of Rosalyn Tureck was most likely crafted in 1953, when Ms. Tureck was only 39 years old. But Mr. Unknown went down with the ship in 1920, when Mr. Epstein was 40 years old. In addition, the year 1908 is engraved in the back of the neck, as well as the name "Pollock" and a rudimentary drawing of a ship’s anchor. If it was indeed Mr. Epstein’s work, and the year 1908 was the year he sculpted Mr. Unknown, Epstein would have been 28 years old when he crafted it.
Passengers who traveled from Boston to Liverpool in the post WWI period, tended to be the wealthy, and less likely the classic immigrant types, or holiday makers.
The Leyland liner SS. Bohemian was a ship of choice offering a first class passage that met the expectations of the who-is-who of the day. Her ocean crossings were regularly advertised in the daily papers of Boston and New York, to allow the demanding passengers to plan. This suggests that the decision to ship this bust to the UK was an important one. The bust was of great value to someone. If it didn’t belong to the ship’s chattels, then someone wanted it very badly, but who is it, and why did they want it so badly?
There is lots of speculation about the origins of this bust and what once was a head without a story has become a head with many stories. Here is a small sample:
It is an early commission by Epstein. The name Pollock is the person who commissioned the work. Epstein’s signature does not appear, but artists didn’t always sign their own name on commissioned work.
It is the bust of an important ‘mover and shaker’ of Leyland Lines. Often busts of owners or builders decorated the first class lounge- thus it was part of the ship’s decor.
It belonged to a passenger of the Bohemian who was returning to England. In that case it would not be listed in any cargo manifest, but a closer look at the passenger list might identify individuals who were most likely to carry this type or art work with them.
It was an art exchange on its way back to London via Liverpool. If so, it should be listed in the cargo manifest.
And so, amongst all this speculation, a truth is out there somewhere, just waiting to surprise all of us… and maybe, just maybe, the surprise maybe your trick-or-treat in the October issue.
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