Epstein in the Strand

August 27 2014

Re the last post but oneJacob Epstein’s sculptures were not really like the ill-defined “pre-Romanesque” sculpture to which Toynbee alludes, but Toynbee’s phrase “clumsy stiffness” is likely to refer to his work.

Through Epstein’s 1908 figures for the façade of the new British Medical Association building in the Strand, now Zimbabwe House, the British public had its first and formative encounter with a version of Modernism.

The encounter was unsettling because it took place in a street. It was known that strange things had been happening in painting, but paintings were in galleries. Sickert painted some of his Camden Town nudes in the same year.

The Epstein sculptures epitomised the modern. Their stripping away of an academic veil, not the subject-matter, made the reaction to them prudish. They might have been at the back of Toynbee’s and Strudwick’s minds a quarter of a century later. The BMA resisted the campaign for their removal.

The Evening Standard warned that Epstein had erected “a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man his fiancée, to see”. Half a century later Mervyn Griffith-Jones would ask during the Lady Chatterley trial: “When you have read it through, would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

The building became Rhodesia House (or the High Commission of Southern Rhodesia) in 1923.

Wikipedia: “London was not ready for Epstein’s first major commission – 18 large nude sculptures made in 1908 for the façade of Charles Holden’s building for the British Medical Association on The Strand (now Zimbabwe House) were initially considered shocking to Edwardian sensibilities, […] mainly due to the perception that they were over-explicit sexually. In art-historical terms, however, the Strand sculptures were controversial for quite a different reason: they represented Epstein’s first thoroughgoing attempt to break away from traditional European iconography in favour of elements derived from an alternative sculptural milieu – that of classical India. The female figures in particular may be seen deliberately to incorporate the posture and hand gestures of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu art from the subcontinent in no uncertain terms. The current, mutilated condition of many of the sculptures is also not entirely connected with prudish censorship; the damage was caused in the 1930s when possibly dangerous projecting features were hacked off after pieces fell from one of the statues.” Not entirely?

If Toynbee and Strudwick had forgotten about the Ages of Man, they were thinking of the likes of Epstein’s Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1912) in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, and the reliefs of Epstein, Henry Moore, Eric Gill and others (1928) for the London Electric Railway headquarters (Moore’s first public commission)

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BMA figures post-mutilation (first two images), photographs of original plaster casts (last four); credit: Nick Maroudas, Spike Magazine

Epstein BMA

Partial photo collage, Flickr credit: Dr Chester Chu

More shots at Flickr. I can’t find good images of the female figures.

2 Responses to “Epstein in the Strand”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Because girls can read as well as boys! This was an afterthought for Griffith-Jones.


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