London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 7: Hyde Park

The final photo-essay by Dr Nick Maroudas on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

Epstein lived at no. 18 Hyde Park Gate, and it says much for the civic pride of this ultra-respectable neighbourhood that he was twice commissioned to make a sculpture for the Park. Both of them have a “green” theme. But here I must confess, they often tempted me to an ecological peccadillo: on a drive between north and south London, I would cut through the park solely to get out and admire them on the way.

In a little bird sanctuary one can see the memorial to W.H. Hudson, author of Green Mansions and a founder of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In the 60s Notting Hill was still the unfashionable side of Hyde Park, tainted by genteel prejudice against the Irish navvies who had built Paddington station. “No Irish” was a familiar notice on rooms to let in London. But time has fulfilled Peter Rachman’s prophetic vision of a Notting Hill with real estate value added: it has proved entirely feasible to drive out the poor and bring in a better class of tenant to the north side of the park. Coming back from the past on a visit to London in the 21st century and walking down from Paddington, I was startled by the apparition of a well dressed lady leading two very clean infants toward the park in fresh cotton frocks – all magically transported from Kensington. But recalling that I had read about a movie starring a new and fashionable “Notting Hill”, I hastily collected my wits and asked directions; because the bird sanctuary is rather small and easily missed among the surrounding trees . Mention of a bird sanctuary drew blank looks, so I explained that I was looking for: “a small statue of a bird lady with a puffin on her shoulder”. I used this childish language because I was beginning to suspect that I might get more out of the children than out of the adult. The lady seemed pained, and the little girl began to tug urgently at the grownup’s skirt so, not wishing to embarrass them further (“To the Irish every stranger is a potential conversation, to the English every stranger is a potential bore”). I crossed the Bayswater Road as soon as the lights changed (but no sooner, lest the children be set a bad example). Hardly were we inside the park when the lady kindly came up to me and said, with that stiff embarrassed expression which the English well-bred assume when obliged to address somebody to whom they have not been properly introduced, “My daughter tells me it is near the Lido”. I thanked them and went on with joy in my heart; because that little girl had not been taught about W.H. Hudson and the founding of the RSPB: she had been taken to the Serpentine by her nanny, or in a school crocodile – and the wild bird lady had become part of her consciousness.

Which is as it should be.

I would have liked to tell the child that the bird lady’s name was Rima, and that she comes from a book called Green Mansions because birds live in green mansions – but I was too shy.

Epstein Hyde Park
figures 48 and 49

Here is the Hudson memorial “the size of a postage stamp” inside its fenced sanctuary (figure 48). And here is Rima in a flurry of wing and beak (figure 49). They are wild birds and, according to an ornithologist friend, symbolic rather than exact. The larger are two species of typical hooked-beak raptor; the eagle is well worked-out, with feathers finely chiselled and massive wings folded to power dive “like a thunder-bolt”. The softer raptor is more hawk like. The small birds may be a species (or two) of crow with general-purpose Swiss-army-knife slightly-curved beaks. There is no puffin, ignoramus that I am.

As a boy, I read Green Mansions in the same week with Pride and Prejudice. These books, swallowed together and too soon, left a vague impression of two remote exotic lands at opposite poles, equally distant from my urban working-class world. But however vague my recollection of those heroines, long joined with ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘The Princess on the Pea’ in the swirling mists of fable, I am absolute that Rima in her green mansions was closer to Epstein than Miss Bennet in her entailed estate. No Jane Austen Society followed the RSPB to commission Epstein. Rima probably scared them off because she “ain’t got no panties”. Rima is a wild thing among the wild birds; and Epstein created her stark naked like Botticelli’s Venus because, as Botticelli remarked (in the play Poor Little Nelly Machiavelli) “it increases her pathos, poor dear”.

Epstein Bowater
figures 50 and 51

Epstein’s sculpture for Bowater House (figure 50) was entitled The Rush of Green. Fluid bronze depicts a family and their dog rushing forward towards the park to enjoy clean air and green spaces (figures 50 to 56). “Pan charms them and nature pulls them away from the offices, shops, and dwellings behind”. It stands as Epstein’s last testament, and a cheerful one. Like Beethoven in his final phase, “he had more to carry, and he carried it more lightly” (J.W.N. Sullivan).

Epstein Bowater
figures 52 and 53

I like the boy with the dog. Epstein sculpted his own dog Frisky as an adorable little spaniel; but the Green’s dog is a large hound of indeterminate breed with a long clumsy muzzle, half wild, half comical as it looks back toward the family in its bounding dogginess. The father appears resolute, long suffering – a typical Epstein look (figure 54); perhaps he is worrying how to pay the rent yet spend time with his family. Behind him comes Pan, keeping a wary eye open for a change in the weather. The active bodies of husband and wife express a good contrast between rugged maleness and smooth femininity (figure 52). But the woman with a beseeching gesture leads them all onward (figures 52, 55 and 56) – her body elongated into a strong fluid line of bronze, like the barrel of a big gun, like the keel of a ship, like a rocket:

Das ewig-weibliche zieht uns hinan.

In this last work, Epstein found yet another solution to the problem that he had long pondered: how to reconcile the big public statement with the joys and sorrows of ordinary life. In size and finesse of architectural setting, this is very much in his grand manner; but in depiction of personality it is very much in the manner of his portrait busts. And in gaiety it joins with other cheerful statues of London’s open space: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Girl with Dolphin at Tower Bridge.

The old Bowater House was built in Mies van der Rohe style; one of those neat modular boxes in which most of the work of the world gets done. It has since been demolished. The sculpture and its gate have been displaced to make way for the most expensive apartments in the world: four fussy concrete-and-glass blocks, twice the volume of Bowater House.

Epstein Bowater
figures 54 and 55

I liked Bowater House. It ought to have been listed Grade I for preservation, because its dark-suit-white-shirt office anonymity provided a perfect foil to Rush of Green (figure 50). Alas, that is only my opinion. Here is an authoritative voice:

The one piece of enlightened thinking [by Bowater] was the later (1959-61) inclusion of an Epstein sculpture of a family group with the god Pan, facing the park. Had it been at the Knightsbridge side, this sculpture might have provided some sort of sense of a public realm at the buildings base. As it was, it was largely ignored.

Against which, I present photographic evidence, figures 50 to 56. To at least one former Londoner, Bowater House provided a definite “sense of public realm at the building’s base”; and this magnificent piece of sculpture was by no means “largely ignored”; quite the contrary, I used drive in from Knightsbridge through Bowater’s ample portal over the old Edinburgh gate, just so that I could spend a few moments drinking in that glorious rush of green. You can see them now as I saw them then (figure 56) bathed in early sunlight and rushing to green in “the joy of the morning”.

As with a previous Epstein setting (see TUC House), one can only hope that colour photos of the Rush-Greens at their original address survive, so that another piece of official vandalism might stand a slight chance of being corrected in some remote enlightened future.

Bowater Epstein
figures 56 and 57

On August 19th, 1959, Epstein completed The Bowater House Group. He died later that day in his home at 18 Hyde Park Gate, of heart failure. A quick, clean death at a good age and on a good occasion, attended by people who loved him; I should like to go like that.

In Loughton, where he lived for many years and where his second house, at no. 50 Baldwin Hill, bears a blue plaque:

… he was remembered by many local residents who saw and chatted to him, as a man of kindly and compassionate disposition though impatient of anyone lacking humility…

He possessed a gracious and courteous manner. His conversation was cultivated and, on the subject of art, very learned.

He never lost his Brooklyn accent.


Googling from abroad I learn that Rush of Green, coyly renamed the Pan Statue, now stands in a displaced Edinburgh Gate, “much narrower than the one lost in 2007” (Evening Standard) and “with slightly meagre pavements” (The Guardian) – not surprising on a site where any square metre clawed from public space into private hands might gain the seller £50,000. At their new address the bronze group remain mercifully intact, albeit more cramped and perched on a zippy new plinth against the intrusive buzz of visual distraction from 1HP. Here is the opinion of Oliver Wainwright; I think his words apply equally well to Epstein’s bronze family. Wainwright is preferring some plain buildings from the 60s: [which are] “to be hugged like the family’s big woolly dog. In comparison to their rugged confidence, One Hyde Park seems more like a prissy Siamese cat: all grilles, flaps and mannered articulation. It would probably scratch you if you tried to hug it.”

As far as I can judge from the web, where they stand on South Carriage Drive new “street furniture” in aggressively safe Elfin fluorescent yellow, adds to the uneasy feeling of edginess and scratchiness. All that jazz diminishes Epstein’s carefully planned contrast with a plain neutral office building, and hence diminishes the original impetus of Rush of Green. But, being a resilient family, the Rush-Greens will no doubt adapt to their straitened circumstances and their pushy new neighbour, and continue to work some of their old magic on unsuspecting passers-by.

Money trickles upward, population increases, people grow taller yet ceilings grow lower, especially in your multi-million pound apartment on Hyde Park. Green space and public space get eaten away: there in a big gulp, here only a little nibble. Hyde Park still has 350 acres. Rush to the Green!

The great god Pan pipes them on, but keeps a weather-eye open on his tough old face.

Debaters use words and make generalizations. A developer promises “good design” and “high-quality public space”, leading to “vibrant” cities”. Pericles probably talked like that. So, what is the difference between the Parthenon and 1HP? Look and see, don’t rely on words. There are lavish words of praise for 1HP; there are even a few words of dispraise for the Parthenon: “misuse of public funds” and “filling Athens with buildings when they ought to have been filling it with justice and temperance” – the latter from high-minded Plato. There were even some words of denunciation for the Elgin Marbles, from the English Press in heavy italics: “The people need bread and you give them stones. We cannot eat stones!”.

But visual artists do not use words; they open your eyes.

Art survives words of praise or blame, can survive surprisingly long, be surprisingly resilient. Great art is like the Sybilline books: the complete set, worth all the public coffers of Rome; half destroyed, the remaining half still worth all the coffers; and so on, down to the last page. Art is like a hologram: break it and each piece will contain the image of the whole, though in lower resolution. Random spores of great art sleep for centuries, get picked up and inoculate susceptible people far away, to start a culture – like the yeast in the sourdough.

Having nearly completed this essay, I happened to re-read C.M. Bowra’s account of ancient Greek art: its love of the physical as a sign of truth beyond appearance, its deification of the human and its humanisation of the gods; its vigor; its respect for architectural and environmental setting. I think Bowra’s words and concepts equally applicable to the Epstein sculptures of modern London. (C.M. Bowra, The Greek Experience, chapter on ‘The Plastic Vision’; part of the series, History of Civilisation).

The most interesting fact that turned up from my googling for background to this essay was, that Jacob Epstein and Thomas Stearns Eliot were on friendly terms. The two avant garde Yanks lived near one another in respectable Kensington, sowing artistic revolt, and Epstein lit the candles on Eliot’s 70th birthday cake. Personal affinity is a strange chemistry, beyond classification by religion or politics: a right-wing intense Christian can share his world-view with a left-wing intense Jew. There is much of Epstein in these lines of Eliot:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle,
Infinitely suffering thing.

I think Epstein is a great artist because he helped open my eyes to something that mathematical physics cannot explain and the currency cannot control: “flesh touched by God.”
Migrating here and there, along some dying eddies of the far flung British Empire, I remain grateful for the traces of culture that I picked up from London – its Epstein sculptures among other wonderful things in that great and grotty city.

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 6: Portrait Busts and Elemental Carvings

The sixth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

These little works are scattered round the world, but I happened to snap them on exhibition in the West End. The Epstein centenary exhibition of 1980 was not your modern blockbuster, with a glossy colour catalogue and punters who plod their weary way through crowded time-slots. The Ben Uri Gallery in Dean Street was small and friendly; nobody told you not to photograph and not to view too close. I have their catalogue still: only 24 pages of plain paper, folded and stapled in the middle like a school exercise book; black-and-white photographs. But the devoted presenters were a powerhouse of British art.

Henry Moore wrote: “Jacob Epstein was a great sculptor … particularly in England. It was through him that sculpture became important to a large number of people who otherwise never thought of it. … he took the brickbats and made things easier for people like me, coming after him.”

Lord Clark: “He started as a master of style, he ended as a master of truth.”

Anthony Caro: “The bronze portrait heads he made, particularly of the men, have been unsurpassed since his death. They have life and generosity of spirit, and these are indeed great gifts in the making of art.”

Epstein busts
figures 26 to 28

Figure 26 shows the front rank of the company, with Epstein himself leading the charge in wedge formation. Under a cavalry-style sturm-cap his eagle eye scours the field ahead, his bladed nose cleaves the air (figure 27). On his left flank rides Einstein, with Vaughan Williams covering the rear “like an eighteenth century admiral whose word was law”. Epstein’s back line looks strong, with Chaim Weizmann and Sunita, “a big woman who liked pepper in her whiskey.”

Figure 28 sounds a gentler note, unexpectedly delicate and refined – almost decadent. On the wall are Epstein’s illustrations for Les Fleurs du Mal. Little Piccaninny gazes with a knowing innocence, like the negro page in a rococo boudoir. Someone has thoughtfully brought two bunches of marguerites in a wicker basket to soften the stark environment of a modern art gallery. In front of the flowers, Esther wears a single bloom on her corsage. Her left breast is bare, her shoulders are delicate (figure 29). I would have liked to add more, but googling to identity the sitter, found that Esther Garman was Epstein’s daughter who committed suicide. Enough.

Epstein busts
figures 29 to 32

The head of Paul Robeson (figure 30) was reconstructed in bronze from sketches of the sitter. Epstein has assembled a complex personality into an equilibrium that looks both powerful and fragile. Robeson was a college graduate, a renowned US football player from 1917 to the early 1920s, an All-American athlete and the singer-actor who immortalized ‘Old Man River’. He played Othello to Peggy Ashcroft’s Desdemona at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon – one of the high points of my years in England. And yet there is a look of “The Insulted and Injured” in Robeson’s face, like that of a child on the verge of tears. The head is strangely poised on a V shaped neck, with a Λ shaped tuft of hair at the top, slightly off balance with the base. The humble aspiration in his uplifted eyes and the determination in his powerful jaw are unforgettable. Epstein recognized a συμμαχον , a fellow fighter. In that period – the 20s and 30s – when fascism was fashionable and ethnic prejudice was the social norm, a Jew or a Negro often needed to struggle for the simple right to be regarded as human; moreover for a creative or a performing artist there is also the perpetual struggle to achieve αρετε : the best from one’s potential.

Areté is evident in Epstein’s iconic bust of Einstein (figure 32). I have included a view from Einstein’s right (figure 31) and from his left (figure 33); because my sainted-mother-in-law of-blessed-memory, when we took her round the Tate, remarked that the right side of the face was racked with cloud compelling thought while the left was … and here she used an Austrian word which I do not remember but which sounded very gemuetlich vaeterlich. Epstein described him thus: “His glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound. This was a combination that delighted me. He resembled the ageing Rembrandt.”

Chaim Weizmann (figure 34) recruited Einstein for a fund-raising trip to the USA; the dynamic duo raised a couple of million dollars for the Hebrew University. However, in Epstein’s busts one can see the difference between these two very eminent Jewish scientists: the one a seeker after knowledge as the way to wisdom (figure 32), the other a seeker after knowledge as the path to power (figure 34).

More Epstein busts
figures 33 to 35

The Weizmann bust (figure 34) always reminds me of Lenin (figure 35). At first I thought it was because both men were Russians of similar phenotype (Tartar cheekbones, rounded skull) and both of them chose to sport their beards in the Imperial style; but seeing the two of them side-by-side by Einstein, I feel sure that Epstein’s Weizmann (figure 34) resembles Andreev’s Lenin (figure 35) in psychology as well as in physiognomy. They confront the world with the same domineering attitude: the cocky stance, the “sneer of cold command” (that is, when such people are not trying their winning ways by being utterly charming).

Andreev has skilfully caught a likeness in Lenin; Epstein has caught Weizmann with equal skill – but Epstein’s modeling digs beneath the skin. Somehow, all those wrinkles on the bronze surface mount up to expose unbearable inner tension. Weizmann complained that he was “the Prisoner of Rehovot”: sidelined on the political chessboard, restricted to building the finest research institute in the Middle East – a mere bagatelle for his powerful intellect. Verbally equivalent (to what Epstein is telling me in bronze) would be Solzhenitsyn’s opinion on this type of world betterer: his short story about Lenin, “the brain which could take the world apart and put it together again”, seething with frustration in peaceful Zurich.

Epstein busts
figures 36 to 39

Sunita (figure 36) was the model for Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square; so was her son. Having rashly described the son as Hindu-looking without knowing who the models were (figure 15) I was relieved to find a Hindu phenotype confirmed in this portrait of his mother (figure 36). (The Madonna of course is not only Hindu: Sunita said that Epstein had made Her far more beautiful than Sunita looked). The next three figures show how subtly Epstein could morph Sunita’s features, playing theme-and-variations on the phenotype. In figure 37 he has shifted Sunita to the European side of Indo-European, keeping her big straight nose (“bignose” the Chinese called their first Dutch sailors) and her big chin; but toning down her high cheekbones, slightly receding her forehead and softening the firm delineation around her own heavy-lidded eyes (figure 36).

In figure 38 he composes a really busty bust, drawing attention to the bosom by elongating her neck, throwing back her head and further receding her forehead. In Sunita’s final morph (figure 39) only the catalogue told me this was still the same model. Sunita has morphed into Israfel – who in turn will morph into Lucifer. In preparation for her eventual metamorphosis into a male angel, her breasts have been suppressed by tight banding (figure 39). The face has become more oval, and her hair has curled away from cold-climate Indo-Euro-Sino straight hair with relatively shallow waves (figure 36; hair that lies flat and keeps you warm) towards a hot-climate springy Afro-Arabian bush (figure 39; hair that spreads out and lets the breeze through). This is in step with her/his name-change, from the Indo-European sounding Sunita to the Semitic sounding Israfel.

“Great is Diana of Ephesus”. Huntress and protectress of wild creatures, protectress of women in childbirth, Diana Artemis Cybele, the Great Mother, Mother of the Gods, plays theme-and-variations on all her creatures. She creates a chimpanzee and, with a few deft touches of DNA, composes an Einstein. People and other animals, adults and children, cats and dogs and wild birds; Epstein showed great skill in depicting the nature of many different creatures, but behind all his variations lay one underlying theme. In his own words: “Man touched by God”.

Annabel Freud (figure 40) is wearing her baby bonnet, the youngest grandchild of Jacob Epstein and Kathleen Garman. This is another example of Epstein’s superb skill in portraying children.

Epstein busts
figures 40 to 42

I cannot identify the woman in figure 41; she does not look famous nor spiritual nor exotic nor tormented (although there is a touch of ancient grief bravely borne in the ringed eye-sockets and the upturned corners of a mouth fixed halfway between smile and sob). A remarkably plain Jane with a lumpy hairdo, parted down the middle, pulled back in a bunch and cut straight across the nape at a safe length: neither sophisticatedly short nor glamourously long. A very unusual face for Epstein; so ordinary and dumpy, he must have liked her quite a lot.

Mrs Godfrey Phillips (figure 42) was the wife of an industrialist. She was a great patron of the arts. Epstein has paid tribute to a delicate-featured woman of great sensitivity, modesty and attentiveness, with fine eyes ever-open in their search for areté.

The Elemental Carvings

I snapped these two carvings (both of them originally named Elemental) while they were on show in the Anthony d’Offay gallery before being shipped out to the South Pacific (figures 43 to 47). The attendant courteously allowed me to photograph these works, rarely seen in London, and I gave him my best slides as a token of thanks. The one is a female (figures 43) arching her back, perhaps in sexual ecstasy (figures 44 and 45).

Epstein's Elemental carvings
figures 43 and 44

Woman Possessed (figure 44) is now in the National Gallery of Australia, and this description is from their website:

The woman, who seems to be consummating her union with a god, lies back clenching her fists, with body arched upward in pose reminiscent of Lydia Sokolova at the climax of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps … Sokolova [who in middle age coached Margot Fonteyn] described the final moments of her dance… “I dropped to the ground and lay backwards, raising my body in a taut arch…” Epstein attended the London performance of this ballet and made sketches…

Woman Possessed (originally called Elemental) is carved from Hoptonwood stone, a marble introduced by the young Henry Moore, who said he liked it because it was an English stone and he was English.

Epstein's Elemental carvings
figures 45 to 47

The title Elemental was transferred to a carving in alabaster (figure 46). According to the sculptor, it was the product of his “primitive woodland surroundings” (number 49 Baldwins Hill on the edge of Epping forest, 250 yards from Loughton bus stop opposite Homebase; good info from this Loughton website).

An apelike creature, squatting and hugging its knees (figure 46). What is it – hominid or hominoid?

Despite its 30s-style perfection of ovoid form, this translucent lump of stone brings to mind Darwin’s unforgettable account of some living conditions that really were elemental: “Tierra del Fuegans … naked and uncovered from the wind, rain and snow … sleep on the ground coiled up like animals … I can scarcely imagine that there is any spectacle more interesting and worthy of reflection, than one of these unbroken savages” (Voyage of the Beagle).

To my mind Elemental resembles a squatting baboon even though it does not have the doglike muzzle of a baboon. So my last photograph of an Epstein sculpture in London was this elemental creature curved into itself, squatting in a far corner of a Mayfair art gallery (figure 47) self-sufficient and self-contained like a real baboon keeping watch on some lonely krantz in the Karroo.

Read the last of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in and around Hyde Park

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 5: Parliament Square

The fifth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

“The finest body of mounted riflemen in the world”. Generous tribute to a former foe of the British Empire, from Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples – a history of the greatest body of armed robbers the world has yet seen, and written by its great Imperialist leader (“I have set three kings upon their throne”). Churchill was admiring the Afrikaner guerilla resistance to British occupation of the Free Afrikaner Republics, a resistance formidably led by the same Afrikaner general whom Parliament now honours. Well, Parliament has a sensible tradition of putting up statues to those who improved it by opposing it. And Parliament also has a profitable tradition of pirating the wealth of a small country after demonising its people as fanatical and its leader as corrupt. (Profitable for a handful of leading wolves; but their woolly flock of lobby fodder must remain content with salary, pension and what they can wangle from expenses).

The fate of the Afrikaner Free Republics and their President Kruger was sealed as soon as they began to mine gold and diamonds, and build modern cities with electric vehicles running on broad streets. Said my Afrikaner brother-in-law: “The British don’t bring progress; they just wait till they see something is working, and take over”. The smaller the better. Says the Afrikaans popular song DelaRey: “a handful of us ‘gainst a whole great might”.

Africa is crucified North to South, East to West. At its suffering centre writhes the Congo – the heart of darkness. Behind the armies sit politicians scheming how to deploy the army and “become filthy rich”; behind the politicians sit financiers scheming how to deploy Parliament and “control the currency”. It was not by chance that Joseph Conrad had the narrator of the Heart of Darkness begin and end his story on the shining Thames where Parliament sits and The City squats. And at the darkest centre of the Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s narrator needed only a brief glance to tell us: “the flabby devil was running that show … in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, weak-eyed, pretending devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly”.

Epstein in Parliament Square
figures 21 and 22

So what is the most famous Afrikaner resistance leader doing on a plinth next the most famous British prime minister? There they stand (figure 21): the shambling romantic genius Churchill, “two hundred percent fit” on his regime of cigars, brandy and pudding; and the abstemious philosopher Field Marshall Jan Christiaan Smuts, striding with upright head and body leaning forward, just as he used to walk on top of windy Table Mountain when I was a boy. In those days, Smuts was recruiting my young uncles (hardly more than boys themselves) to go “up north” and fight for the British Empire against the German Reich. But neither the Irish nor the Afrikaners wanted any part in that war:

The English occupied our country, starved us, shot us, dispossessed us – and then laughed at us. What harm have the Germans ever done to us?

A Resistance leader who sides with the Occupying Power is a quisling, and Smuts lost the support of his Afrikaners. But Slim Jannie (Smart Johnny) although a warrior by necessity was a conciliator by nature, and his philosophy was Holistic. Here is a more objective assessment, from Encyc.Britt 1967:

His greatness lay in his continuous pursuit of Anglo-Afrikaner unity, his contribution to international order and his vigorous leadership in World Wars 1 and 2.

At Christ’s College Cambridge, Smuts stood out as a student of great ability, with a mind that was both broad and deep. He wrote a psychological study on Walt Whitman, and he was the top first in both parts of the law tripos. He later published a book on Holism and Evolution.

But Joseph Chamberlain [Liberal businessman] and Sir Alfred Milner [of Midland Bank, trustee of Cecil Rhodes backed by Lord Rothschild of many banks] were impatient to assert British supremacy over the whole of Southern Africa. Smuts became a guerilla fighter. The experience demonstrated his leadership ability and won him the lifelong allegiance of those that served under him. After the fall of Pretoria, Smuts’s conciliatory work for political union and his draft constitution became the basis for the Union of South Africa.

In World War 1 Smuts became a member of the British war cabinet performing many valuable services for the British government and the allies. In 1918 he wrote a project for a League of Nations, which was a major contribution to the origin of that body. He opposed the imposition of severe reparations on Germany, and was extremely reluctant to sign the treaty of Versailles.

In 1921 he persuaded Irish leaders to enter into negotiations that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State.

In World War 2 Smuts, sensitive to the broader implications of Nazi expansion overcame political neutralism, and under his leadership the South African war effort was impressive. Winston Churchill set a high value on his judgment. In 1945 Smuts played a major part in drafting the United Nations charter.

I quote Smuts’s objective qualifications at length, because none of them are written on his plinth. All you see is an old soldier in a sam-brown. His face is careworn but his gaze is keen (figure 23). He is not your usual pompous person on a plinth. “Sit we never so high”, says Montaigne, “we can only sit on our own rear end”.

Epstein has preserved for posterity not his honours but the man himself. What we see today is exactly what future onlookers would admire, if that statue were to be dug up after a decay of civilization in which all records had been lost: the lively portrait of a man who walks firmly but lightly on his own two feet.

Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted 12 years. As for Churchill’s British Empire (“…if the British Empire were to survive for a thousand years…”) it collapsed within ten years of Churchill’s greatest speech. However, the same Anglo-American finance that bankrolled Rhodes and Milner continues to pull the strings in post-imperial Britain and post-colonial Africa: “I care not who rules a country, so long as I can control its currency”. The United Nations has followed the League of Nations by subsiding slowly into the same slough of ineffectual infamy: “I help the stronger nations reduce weaker nations to impotence”. The Union of South Africa survives, but it is a predominantly Bantu republic now, and not part of a White Commonwealth with the British monarch at its head as envisaged by Smuts and Churchill. Little is left today from Smuts’s holistic philosophy of unity, and his politics of reconciliation.

What will be left for the remote future? Perhaps only the image on this plinth: a man of action and a thinker, who looks upward and looks ahead, who near the end of a long life is still walking briskly. A man who does the best he can, who tries to stay upright and master the devils in himself, as well as the flabby devil who is “running that show” over there in Parliament (figures 21 and 24). The flabby devil is very strong: it is made up of millions of people, and it will never be exorcised until all those millions learn to think for themselves – which is very hard work.

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors…
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.”

As regards style: for this official portrait Epstein reverted to the classical realism of his academic training; but it was the Realism of a master who had tried many things and held on to what proved good. He learned the Modernist trick of letting the forms speak for themselves: the sharp cusps of the lapels and the pocket-flap (figure 23), the flapping skirts of the riding jacket (figure 24), the intricate lacing on the puttees (figure 25), the exaggeratedly squared-off heel on the right boot; and its curved sole which is unrealistic but adds an impression of lift to the heel. However, Epstein was not “modern”: he respected the individuality of his sitters; his portraits caught a likeness and often expressed their soul – what neurologists used to call “their psyche” and nowadays call “their bundle of qualities” (says neurologist Oliver Sacks).

Epstein in Parliament Square
figures 23, 24 and 25

Once, in the 70s or 80s, I opened a book called Modern British Sculpture, and sought in vain for the name Epstein. Those days have passed, along with Modernism. The Smuts statue is timeless. However, it looks different from the timeless ideal that Michelangelo aimed at in his tomb for Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici: “A thousand years from now, who will care what those two really looked like?” Epstein cared deeply what people really looked like, insofar as he tried to show an outward reality that expressed the sitter’s inward reality: our timelessness lies within ourselves.

Smuts died in 1950, so the sculptor was obliged to work from photographs, aided by recent memory of the man. However, compared with El Greco’s portrait of cardinal Juan de Tavera 30 years dead, Epstein was in a much better position than Greco – and it shows. El Greco, with only the death mask to go by, portrays a pallid cadaver with its eyes propped open. Epstein’s statue strides with life abounding; all the more lively (without losing dignity) because of its tilt against the stiff verticality of Big Ben.

As usual Epstein carefully (and cunningly and craftily – German: kenning, knowledge; kraft, force) placed the work in its setting. By the time he conceived the Smuts statue Epstein had finally reconciled two hitherto disparate elements of his art: the large impersonal monument and the small personal portrait. He made good his early criticism of Rodin; it is not enough to create a monument that is beautiful or striking, as Rodin undoubtedly did: but the work must also harmonise with its surroundings. Epstein has daringly harmonised his work by setting it “against the beat” in Parliament Square.

So there they stand, Churchill with Smuts, both of them “leaning at a slight angle to the universe”; especially leaning at a slight angle to Parliament – as anybody must, who wants to get something done. They stand together because they pushed their respective Parliaments to resist a great force for evil at a crucial time. In the lost decades before Hitler’s war, a visitor to Britain remarked that he could not decide which was the greater wonder: a Parliament that possessed so great a man as Churchill, or a Parliament that could find no use for him. In the second world war Churchill, with sober Attlee at his side to turn inspiration into workable reality, gave British democracy its finest hour. And although modern South Africa is not the white commonwealth that Smuts represented, his holistic spirit can be seen in its extraordinary bloodless revolution which formed the present “rainbow nation”. Both men overcame appeasement at home and defeatism abroad, at a time when their countries stood alone against the fascist menace. They gave the “irresistible armed might” of fascism its first bloody nose, so that the beast backed off to turn on the Russian bear instead – and got its back broken. The holistic spirit of Smuts pervaded the postwar era (except for US paranoia over Communism), and gave a united Europe 50 years of peace and prosperity.

Now Blair and Clinton have unchained the flabby devil again, getting NATO to dismember Serbia to clear the way for a pipeline for an oil consortium and a base for the US Army: the first bombs to be dropped on a European country since Hitler. That is where we are now; the NATO devil is still rampaging, and I do not see anybody on the political horizon who can be even remotely described as “having a mind both broad and deep” or “devoted to reconciliation”.

If the Smuts portrait were to survive a couple of thousand years (a few old bronze sculptures, equally fine, have already survived that long) will historical record still identify the man? All I know is that I have lived to enjoy most of the unity and reconciliation that Smuts worked and fought for, both in wartime South Africa and in postwar Europe. And, as a South African born Britisher, I am grateful to Epstein for presenting “the bundle of good qualities” of the man, and leaving the rest to history.

Read the sixth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s portrait busts and Elemental carvings

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 4: Victoria and Battersea Park

The fourth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

Victoria – For London Transport

Transport House at 55 Broadway, over St James Park tube station, was the tallest building in the London of 1929. Fascism was in the air, Signor Mussolini (as the Press politely styled him) was securely in power, Herr Hitler and Secretary Stalin were gaining ground, and gigantic corporatism was well on its modern way. The Palais de Chaillot in Paris, built a few years later, reflects the same cold-faced grandiosity that will mark the Nuremberg rallies. Corporate gigantism is supported by billions of docile people worming through tubes underground, filing through lines at airports and now, nicely softened up by a constant barrage of terrorist alarms (as Miles Kington brilliantly predicted 50 years ago) patiently waiting for their turn to be passed through insecurity clearance.

Says the textbook on Statistical Methods, “one is not a statistical sample, it counts as zero”; the individual counts for next to nothing. There is a Law of Large Numbers; and it rules in mathematical physics, in economics and in politics. I do not like calculated grandiosity, and I cannot warm to Epstein’s essay in that impersonal style; so here is an extract of greater objectivity, from the London Transport Museum website:

Frank Pick, assistant managing director of the London Underground Group, commissioned the architect Charles Holden of the firm Adams Holden and Pearson to design the building. The modern and assertive design was considered an architectural masterpiece. It was awarded the London Architectural Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1929. The Underground Group’s desire to make a bold architectural statement in keeping with the ideals of the company had been realised. Holden commissioned some of the most famous sculptors of the day to carve large figurative reliefs, depicting the four winds, directly onto the stonework. These are high up each side of the four wings. The sculptors were Eric Gill, Henry Moore, Eric Aumonier, Samuel Rabinovitch, Allan Wyon and Alfred Gerrard.

Holden commissioned Jacob Epstein to create two groups over the entrances called Day and Night. Their primitive, vital style and the figures’ nudity created a furore. Both Pick and Holden stood by the sculptor, Pick even tendering his resignation in support of Epstein. His resignation was not accepted and the sculptures stayed. However an inch and a half had to be removed from the penis of the figure in Day, as the original size offended contemporary sensibilities.

Epstein’s sculptures were not universally slated. One contemporary commentator wrote, ‘When one looks at them one hardly likes them, but they make such a powerful impression on the mind that when one has left the building they stand out in the memory…’ The same commentator went on to say ‘one would be happier if all buildings were as good as this’. 55 Broadway is now a Grade II listed building.

My only comment is to note how far Epstein had developed away from the academic Classical Greek style which he had already mastered so brilliantly in his previous commission from Charles Holden, for the Strand. The giants here represent his ethnological interests, although there are also deliberate echoes of Michelangelo in the marmoreal smoothness of Night (figure 17), and in the virile roughness of Day (figure 18). Curiously enough, the Michelangelo commissions for that powerful banking house (the Lorenzo & Giuliano tombs, the Medici palace, the Lorenzo Library, San Lorenzo) are tinged with remarkable coldness: their curves “flow like frozen lava”. I suspect the Hollywood effect: paralysis of art by Big Money. The Medici entered historical record as a family of cut-throat bandits, then they became bankers. As a family of bankers they spawned popes and princes, a French princess and a good king of France – even founded the Bank of England (Banca e Compagnia was written on the old Libra £ notes).

Epstein for London Transport
figures 17 and 18

As usual, Epstein has placed his sculptures well. If one looks up from Night, one sees an ingenious groove cut into the building by the architect, to let more daylight into the vast mass; like a sunlit valley carved in the side of some dark mountain by a glacier. A cascade of windows recede floor after floor as far as the eye can see, like “hanging valleys” across the groove of the main valley. It is a fine piece of sculpture of its kind, set well into a fine building of its kind; and its kind of giant-unit-with-an-emphatic-public-statement is needed to perform the work of the world. However, there is a grave problem of corporate scale, as against the scale of the individual human body, which became acute in the 30s and 40s, and which is becoming even more acute today.

In his work for Transport House in 1938, Epstein went with the corporate spirit of the age and he mastered its forms. But already his 1913 work, Rock Drill, was a protest against the mechanized monstrosity of modern life. After Hitler’s war, he had pondered the problem and come up with new concepts that reconciled individual sensibility with corporate mass (see TUC and the final essay on Bowater).

The writer for Transport House (above) notes that Epstein’s penis fetish was well to the fore in Day and Son (figure 18). Even with one-and-a-half inches lopped off Sonny, it is still very much “in yer face”: if Sonny had been there to perform the same function as Manneken Pis, passers-by would have had to put up their umbrellas. But I like the kindly glint in his tough old dad’s eye.

The Transport House carving has a pre-Columbian flavour, an insensitive heaviness in keeping with the heavy insensitive style of the age – an age that fostered megalomania, ethnic suprematism and disastrous war. George Orwell cried out in despair: “there are no longer any Tories, there are only liberals, fascists and the accomplices of fascists”. Insert “economic” before liberals, and “corporate” before fascists, and you find an age remarkably like the present. Right now, huge economic and political structures are systematically crushing small countries with giant insensitivity. Posing on a NATO tank in Serbia after that little country has been bombed, occupied and dismembered, a British minister crows: “No-one can resist our armed might!”. Yes, 7 million people could not withstand our flabby corporate devil one hundred times its size: our 700 million strong NATO giant. Blair and Clinton dispatched the first bombers to break the peace of Europe since Goering flew his own “irresistible armed might” over Guernica. Megalomania opts for disastrous war; especially the megalomania of a servile piece of lobby fodder like that British minister and his ilk, in a Parliament of sheep led by wolves.

Battersea Park (and Coventry Cathedral)

Ecce Homo! I have only one picture, taken on a rather grey day, when even the Fun Fair looked cheerless (figure 19a). Vaguely remembering from his auto-biography that the sole customer for one of Epstein’s biblical statues had been a freak show, I rashly assumed that Ecce Homo belonged to Battersea Fun Fair; but no! The one in the freak show was an Adam with penis as long and heavy as a bull’s pizzle. (And God said to Adam, “Increase and multiply!”). As for Ecce Homo, Epstein could not find even a freak show to buy his new biblical sculpture (not so sexy as the old Adam). Ecce Homo became Eccy Homeless, aimlessly hanging around the Epstein apartment. To get Eccy out of the house, the Epsteins put him on floating loan to Battersea Park for an annual exhibition of sculpture. When I snapped him there, the other statues must have already gone home because Eccy was standing in a lonely corner of the lawn like Eeyore in his field, and looking rather glum (figure 19a).

Epstein's Ecce Homo
figures 19 and 19a

There is a happy ending to this sad episode. After Epstein’s decease his widow, the remarkable Kathleen Garman, had the bright idea of donating Ecce Homo to Coventry Cathedral. Then someone at Coventry must have had a brainwave because Eccy now stands by a pillar of the old bombed cathedral, where his suffering is appreciated at its true worth. Eccy is at home at last among those hallowed pillars. Like him, they have absorbed much punishment; and like him, they have come through.

Ecce Homo can now be appreciated by a new generation of amateur photographers, who post digital photos on the world wide web; one, uploaded by bressons-puddle, was chosen for Google World. The photo used here (figure 19) was uploaded by oxyman with Author Jim from London. They generously include a high resolution download for free, under Creative Commons.

The march of progress – and of freedom, as in Free Software, free lunch and free beer. Freedoms that annoy the high priests of Free Enterprise, because a really free lunch (one that is not just a tempting bit of bait, a loss-leader) upsets control through the currency. In the holy book of Free Enterprise it is written: “He who cannot pay, neither shall he eat. Nothing moves in this world until some money has changed hands”.

Eccy was a free gift to the cathedral; he was not bought and paid for. He is not to be valued against numbers large or small; he is an individual human being who suffers: Ecce Homo!. The man who drove the money-changers from the temple thereby signed his own death warrant, set for the last day of that very same week – and was resurrected on the very first day of the next!.

This is heartening. From the bombed ruins of two Christian institutions, a Jewish sculptor presents the Christian message of Incarnation (Convent of the Holy Child) and Redemption of Suffering (Coventry cathedral). The Nazis had a word “zu Koventrieren” – to Coventry a town, meaning to destroy it entirely. (As nowadays the US Army might say “to Fallujah” a town). And this very site, by a pillar of the Old Cathedral of Coventry, is where the ruggedness of Ecce Homo rises to its full religious dimension; where it can express a steadfastness unto death and beyond; of the man who was scourged at the pillar and of a faith that transcends the all-too-human, all-too-common brutality of man to man.

This figure is massively, even crudely, carved – partly for technical reasons (see below). But this crudeness is not a sign of insensitivity: the blunt features and scarified skin reflect an extremity of physical and emotional punishment. And yet! A dogged expression on the freshly bruised face (yet with eyes uplifted!) and those powerful yet amazingly reposeful hands! (figure 20) It reminds me of some imprisoned political leaders in two countries where I have lived. Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and Marwan Barghouti projected this same image: a massive capacity to soak up punishment, and the serene courage to outface their persecutors. Luthuli died in captivity (“collided with a train”, I read) but I can recall his smile; Mandela was set free to share a smile with the world; Barghouti is still in the limbo of political captivity, neither snuffed out nor set free. Ecce Homo!

Coventry cathedral has another Epstein sculpture on its front wall, St Michael and the Devil. I saw it at the Tate, but London museums unlike those in Paris did not allow photography, so my comment is from memory. With Hitler’s war and a hard struggle against the brave, highly competent and totally misguided German army still in mind, I thought Epstein’s Devil looked unconvincingly flabby and Michael’s pose unrealistically nonbelligerent despite his spear. Since then, having found the flabby devil in other places (see the essay on Parliament Square) and pondering what it takes to exorcise him, Epstein’s concept begins to germinate. The flabby devil is strong only because he is so big: fifty million heads in the Nazi devil, seven hundred million in the NATO devil. He does not understand the harm he does, because he is too big and too stupid. Among the tens or hundreds of millions of heads in his flaccid body there must be millions of heads that can think for themselves and feel compassion for others; but the whole lot, acting in the lump, do not add up to even half a brain. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do”.

The law of large numbers is not valid here: a billion flabby bodies add up to a giant in physical strength, but a billion flabby, insensitive souls do not add up to a strong, sensitive soul. Neither does the law of large numbers hold for the individuals who suffer. Fifty million dead in Hitler’s war, a million in Blair’s wars, a mere thousand in Cameron’s little crucifixion of Libya; but in “the scales of justice where Zeus weighs the harvest of lives reaped by pitiless bronze, the profit and loss of war” – what do they weigh? The scales of justice cannot register more than the terror and suffering of a single child with its limbs blown off by one of our cluster bombs; nor of a single British soldier dying dulce et decorum pro BP. Neither can larger numbers exceed the suffering of a lone man “renditioned” to the Romans for crucifixion: “the cruellest form of death that perverse human ingenuity has ever devised.”

Ecce Homo!

The flabby devil can be chained: it was chained for 50 years in Europe. But I think it will never be exorcised until every one of its heads cares to feel the pain of a single victim crushed under our flabby devil – which is not a pleasant thing to feel. Much nicer to triumph with that British minister gloating from a NATO tank: “No-one can resist our armed might!”

Saturation bombing of German towns was the natural unchristian revenge for Coventry. What will the revenge be for Fallujah? For Belgrade, Beirut, Baghdad, Kabul, Tripoli and many more towns Coventried by our armed forces in ongoing “surgical operations” to enforce enduring freedom? You think there can be no revenge because no-one can resist our armed might? Here is C.M. Bowra on the proud founding fathers of democracy in their own Home of the Brave, Land of the Free:

The sense of unique powers easily became a sense of mission … and if Athenian civilization was not accepted voluntarily it was sometimes imposed by brutal compulsion. The Athenian empire brought many benefits to its members, but its policy, which was a result of self-confidence and belief in democratic ideals, could only breed distrust, fear and hatred among those to whom such ideals were abhorrent. … For the Athenians final defeat was a disaster which they had never thought possible. … In 454 their [five year long] expedition to Egypt had failed catastrophically. … in 413 BC the Athenian army was annihilated in Syracuse … The skill and luck which had guided and guarded Athens now failed her, and she had no protection against her enemies. …When in the summer of 405 BC Athens lost her [hitherto irresistible armed] fleet at Aegospotami, there was no more hope of resistance. … the recognition of it brought guilty fear for brutalities committed in the past. … They wept for their dead [soldiers] but far more for themselves, thinking that [now] they would suffer what they had done to the people of Melos, … of Histiaea and Scione and Torone and Aegina and many more … The inconceivable had happened, and the Athenians felt that they were deserted by the gods and hated by men clamouring for vengeance and able to exact it.

The Crucifixion of course implies the Resurrection; Good Friday implies Easter Monday: the paradox of the Christian synthesis. Fathers and mothers of the early Church, digging deep below the Classical foundations of the Graeco-Roman world, recovered primitive myths of birth, death and regeneration, of sin and atonement; and grafted them onto a new transcendental view of the world – of humanity’s place in a temporal universe which, vast though it may be, had a beginning and must have an end. Ecce Homo!

The dripping blood our only drink
The bloody flesh our only food
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood
In spite of which again we call this Friday Good.

Ecce Homo was hewn out of a block of Subiaco marble from Italy, and Epstein records his brutal struggle with the stubborn recalcitrance of that stone in Let There Be Sculpture. Look at Eccy’s hands, from the hi-res photo (figure 20). They are a worker’s hands (carpenter’s hands?) with rough skin, and fingernails worn down square to the ends of his broad fingers; they might be the hands of Jacob Epstein.

Epstein close-up
figure 20

Read the fifth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in Parliament Square

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 3: Cavendish Square – For The Convent of the Holy Child

The third of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

One side of John Lewis’s (“never knowingly undersold”) fronts bustling Oxford Street with its rabbits that dart on and off the buses to do their shopping. The other side of John Lewis backs onto a little oasis of calm, a green park in Wigmore Street. Cavendish Square is open (unlike the private squares of Bloomsbury) but mercifully it is spared a pounding from multitudinous feet. There some nuns set up a free school for poor children, which they financed by setting up a paying school for well-off children. The convent was bombed during WW2; after the war, architect Louis Osman was called in to restore No.12 and create a linked bridge with No.13. Osman had an idea for the facade of the bridge: a statue of the Holy Child would “levitate” against the facade, and it would have to be cast in lead – the roofing from the bombed building. He assigned this commission to Jacob Epstein. Naturally the prospect of a Jew creating a Christian icon raised some opposition, but Louis Osman backed his man. So, with great fair-mindedess, the Mother Superior interviewed Epstein about his views on a religious work. The happy resolution of this “clash of cultures” reminds me of the tribute, from a Hindu lady physician to Mother Theresa of Calcutta: “We may have differed on principles but when it came to the health of the child, Mother was right there”. The Convent of the Holy Child found that, when it came to doing a religious work, Jacob Epstein was right there. Their Mother Superior requested only that the face be changed to give the Virgin a more serene expression. And quite right too, a most happy suggestion. Artists have mannerisms, and Epstein’s mannerism is to lay it on a bit thick: “a look of suffering is the badge of all my works” .

So there they stand, Virgin Mother and Holy Child – three tons of lead suspended against a brick wall; you can see them through the archway (figures 12 to 16). The slanting shadow of the moving sun accentuates their placing. Epstein took great care with the architectural relation of his projected works to their environment. In this respect he was continuing the tradition of the ancient Greeks who, as an expression of civic pride, took great care in the placing of a temple in relation to the city, the hills and the sea; and took equal care over harmonious relations between the temple and the statues within it.

Epstein Cavendish Square
figures 12 to 14

Technically, Epstein has come up with a brilliant solution to his architect’s demands that the statue should (a) seem to “levitate” and (b) be made of lead – an absurd contradiction at first sight. He has made the figures very flat: this reduces their weight as viewed, and makes them seem to flit over the surface like the shadow (figure 12). Artistically, he accentuates their flatness by conceiving the figures in a hieratic style which has not been seen in Western Europe since 1300, when Dante noted that his realistic painter friend, Giotto, had supplanted Cimabue, painter of icons, in fame. The early Christian painters, it has ofter been remarked, were not ignorant of perspective – they rejected it deliberately, because they were using appearance to denote a reality beyond appearance. Strangely enough, Michelangelo also began to reject perspective in his final religious paintings: the Last Judgment, the crucifixion of Saint Peter and the conversion of Saint Paul.

“Time and Space may be illusions”, says one mathematical physicist. The little boy’s outstretched arms form a perfect cross, and his eyes with their deeply drilled pupils exercise an hypnotic intensity inside their perfectly circular sockets; intensified to the second degree by a perfectly flat halo – a halo with a cross inside, like a gunsight. His hair radiates like flames in the sun’s corona; this little genius born to be the Light of the World; this baby cradled in a manger who, like science, came into the world so quietly and then shook it.

Over her child broods the mother. Her face is quiet but watchful. What genotype, what phenotype is she? Her boy looks Hindu. There is a touch of Bantu in her thick lips, a touch of the Sahel in her long triangular chin, a touch of Indo-European in her big straight nose, a touch of the Semite in her receding forehead, a touch of the Tartar in her high cheek-bones and her broad temples. And here did she get those large, heavy-lidded eyes? She is the universal Mother of the Christian god, of its Church which calls itself Catholic because its founder instructed His disciples to go out into the whole world (kata holos) and bring the good news to “all sorts and conditions of men”.

Epstein Cavendish Square
figures 15 and 16

Epstein must have found an extraordinary model for this face; or else, I guess, he extracted a synthesis from his unusually large vocabulary of forms. He used to haunt the museums of London and Paris, and he assembled the largest collection of African art in Britain. Yet his Virgin is no mere composite nor generalised symbol; she is an ordinary young mother, you can meet her in any market place, she has a child to look after, there is a determined set around her mouth.

Time and Space might be an illusion to mystics and mathematical physicists, but they are no illusion to the flesh that is born to move to its destined end. The little boy is not yet ready for his bar-mitzvah, when he will go to Jerusalem and astound the rabbis in the great temple with his learning. He radiates an unusual power, and his mother is a little in awe of her wonderful child; but neither of them dream that a day will come when he will go down to the Sea of Galilee and train fishers of men, and preach the most revolutionary manifesto ever; that a time will come when and people will journey from afar to hear him and be healed, even from Jerusalem, even from Lebanon across the border. “Time in the mercy of its means” leaves them blissfully unaware of all that will follow. All is still.

May the bombs not fall again on this blessed spot.

Read the fourth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in Victoria and Battersea Park

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 2: The Strand – For The British Medical Association

The second of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The first is here

“Let’s all / Go down the Strand”. Walking along the Strand is always a pleasure because of its variety and the nearness of the river. “Hear the little German band / Ach du liebe Augustin”. Entertainments abound on all sides: on the east the University and the Law Courts; on the west Parliament, Admiralty House and the War Office. The comic spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan pipes its airy way into the Strand from both ends and down to its very centre, the Savoy. Somehow even the huge iron ribs of Behemoth at Charing Cross Station merely adds to the charm of the Strand: like a big dog lying down in your living room, at home among the knicknacks. It was at 142 Strand that young Marian Evans, a “loveable great horsefaced bluestocking” powered the wheels of Progress through her Westminster Review, and prepared herself for metamorphosis: not into some loathsome Kafkaesque insect but into that grave, sound, sane George Eliot who wrote “the only Victorian novel which can still be read by a grown-up”. Intellect and lightness meet in the Strand. So, all things considered, it was not unreasonable for a professional body like the Medical Association to build their BMA House at 429 Strand. With this act they set the scene for a tragic Whitehall farce. In 1908 their architect, Charles Holden, chose a promising young man to carve a Medical Frieze for the new building. It was a noble act, because that relative unknown would grow into the greatest sculptor of the 20th century, a pillar in an architectural tradition that spans more than 2,600 years: the tradition of putting a human form and a human face on public buildings. This tradition goes back from modern Europe, through the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages to the great temples of Periclean Athens and beyond, to the great temples of Ancient Egypt.

Epstein on the Strand
figure 6

At first sight, what remains of that Whitehall farce does not look like tragedy. In all my years of strolling or hurrying up and down the Strand, I never even noticed the Medical Frieze until, having become interested in photographing London’s Epstein sculptures, I set out one day to look for it. The figures were so high up and so defaced that I obtained only two shots of acceptable quality (figures 6 and 7; there are better shots on the web). Sour grapes whispered consolingly, “they were probably not very good anyway” and I thought no more about them.

It takes only two steps to erase a cultural memory. The first generation begins to forget; then the next generation forgets that there ever was anything worth remembering. I belonged to that second generation in London of the 60s, 70s and 80s. But decades later, while I was googling information for this essay, a few black-and-white photos of the original plaster casts flashed onto the screen – from an exhibition staged by the Henry Moore Institute (figures 8, 9 and 10). Fortunately for us, Henry Moore had remained ever mindful of Jacob Epstein (see forthcoming article on Epstein’s busts).

figures 7, 8 and 9
figures 7, 8 and 9

Henry Moore had seen the originals, and being himself a sculptor of genius (lucky Britain with Moore, Epstein and Hepworth!) knew that the Medical Frieze was a precious cultural artefact; he simply would not let modern Vandals sweep it into oblivion. Moore died in 1986 but his campaign persisted. The Courtauld Collection had preserved photos of the original plaster casts, and the Henry Moore Foundation mounted an exhibition of those photos. Moore made a vow never to exhibit at the Royal Academy, because the president of the RA, that hearty philistine Sir Alfred Munnings (“became the life and soul of any party as soon as he entered”) used to pop in to Rhodesia House to cheer on the demolition crew. For a good précis of Scandal in the Strand, see SU3A News and The Courtauld’s Art and Architecture.

The casus belli had already been neatly defined by Samuel Butler in verse; Butler once asked a Canadian museum if he could see their copy of Myron’s Discobolus, and was told:

“We keeps him in the cellar ‘cos he aint got no pants”.

So, this was the issue: ought not the BMA statues to be relegated to the cellar because they aint got no pants? The Press readily understood the threat to morality in 1908 (just as it understood in 21C that Milosevic was a genocide, that Sadam was about to destroy us en masse, that Gadaffy was a tyrant to be toppled…); and they went for him with a will. The Medical Association kept its nerve and held the line against a relentless campaign for years; but when BMA House becomes Rhodesia House in 1935, insanity rules – official.

The bureaucrats at Whitehall invoked Elfin Safety and his magic invisible eyewash (see TUC. Protruding front bits might fall on passers by; they must be hacked off lest man-in-the-street be bonked by a bouncing stone bust, or passing woman pierced by a flying stone penis. The hacking was vindictive and excessive. I can’t be bothered to look up the names of those old Rhodesia House officials, but the same type of Foreign & Colonial Jacks-in-Office, blessed by egregious narcissist Foreign Secretary David Owen, would later promote Robert Mugabe over Bishop Muzorewa as a suitable person to run Rhodesia; because Mugabe was obviously one of their own kind: glibly articulate and cold-bloodedly arrogant.

So far, with panic over dropped trousers and the resultant mayhem, it seems to be merely a routine Whitehall farce.

But with the rise of a new generation, 25 years after Moore’s death and 75 years after all that vandalism, the Royal Academy made some amends for the sins of Sir Alfred by hosting the HMI exhibition in January 2011; and their poster was what Google flashed onto my screen, months after the event. To my eye those few photos, in chalky white and greasy black, vindicate Epstein’s concept and execution alike (figures 8, 9 and 10). As far as I can judge, this artist has understood what a Medical Association ought to represent. The plaster casts express a collective atmosphere of science and calm objectivity, coupled with a warm humanity and, above all, a love of abounding health (“rude health” as it used to be called). Prudery has no place in medical science; neither has pornography.

Not since the ancient Greeks has a sculptor depicted the human body with such a zest for life. I wonder where Epstein found his models, because modern city dwellers do not enjoy the advantage of ancient Greek citizens: they are deprived of many physical tasks (including hand to hand combat) that are needed on a daily basis to develop all the muscles naturally. Compare this modern photographic nude by Ed Weston (figure 11): it is an elegantly simple composition because Weston was a genius of the genre; but the flesh is flabby, as are most nudes since the time of Classical Greece. Even nudes by Michelangelo, for all their bulging biceps, show a certain unctuous “morbidezza” in the curve. So on what broad back did Epstein see such hard, crisp muscle; did he dream it up?

Epstein’s general concept can be inferred from figure 10. The figures are nude because it is an “academic” work suited to the grave purpose of an Academy of Medicine. But the motive of this nudity is not what George Brassens had in mind when he sang to the callipyginous lady: “Madame! Je voudrai voir votre academe, et mourir”.

Epstein sculptures
figures 10 and 11

On the contrary, the word that springs to mind for this style of execution is “chaste”. I like the grandfather carrying his grandchild at his shoulder; I know how it feels. There are quotations because the statues are the work of a young man: the aged lady on the left has a touch of Rodin’s Belle Heaulmiere; and the man who stands square but looks sideways and upward, with arm curved over his pelvis, echoes Adam standing at the right hand of Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. But the echoes are faint, and the mood is new.

Look at that great-grandmother (or aged midwife) holding a newborn child (figure 9). I call it l’Heritance because it catches the fulfilment of the old, when they see young life springing out of their own old life; a newborn springing across the gulf of time, while they themselves are sinking back into the gulf of time.

Consider that reverend professor who gives the Anatomy Lesson (figure 8). Although advanced in years he is in the prime of health. He is holding what looks to me like the cross-section of a pregnant womb; to right and left of him are figures holding fruits of the womb: infants whose health and wellbeing he has sworn by the Hippocratic oath to promote. Compared to Epstein’s concept, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp is mere grand-guignol: Rembrandt is simply telling us, “I wants ter make yer flesh creep”.

Leonardo also drew a pregnant womb in cross-section, but it was only an embryological sketch in a notebook, tersely annotated “much here is mysterious”. By comparison, Epstein’s anatomy lesson can be seen as a thoroughly worked-out pictorial tract about life-giving activity in a sane human environment.

This is where farce begins to approach tragedy: Henry Moore having opened our eyes to the magnitude of the loss, mental pangs begin to stir. Though it might not seem appropriate to apply the word “tragedy” where there has been no loss of life, nevertheless the loss of a cultural artefact as great as the Medical Frieze is the loss of a life-enhancing part of wonderful, grotty London town.

Given these photographs, it would not be difficult to reconstruct Epstein’s frieze. It would give worthwhile employment to some British sculptor with a talent for pastiche. Nor would it cost much. Mr Cameron might allocate some petty cash from the British government to repair its former damage to Rhodesia House. Or Mr Mugabe might divert a tiny trickle from Zimbabwe’s tobacco-and-diamond revenue toward Africa’s great heritage of Bantu sculpture, employing African sculptors to restore (or even add to) the wonders of Zimbabwe House.

Pigs might fly.

Read the third of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in Cavendish Square

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 1: Bloomsbury

The first of seven photo-essays by Dr Nick Maroudas on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London


I had read Epstein’s Let There Be Sculpture in South Africa, along with many other books, when I came to Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1956. I vaguely recalled some passages: a penetrating judgment on Rodin (Rodin had no sense of architecture); a strong view on patina (in favour); a rant against dealers (they prefer their artists dead); a complaint that a major work had been purchased only by a freak show. But like most people at the time I was not interested in Epstein sculptures either; I much preferred Rodin and (seduced by all those pretty madonnas) my first love, Italian art. In my blinkered Ph.D. ignorance I did not even know that Epstein dwelt less than 500 yards from where I was proudly slaving over my little thesis, and that the sculptor was completing a statue to the deceased prime minister of my own country. But even among those more aware of what was going on around them, few could have predicted that the old man still had it him to create two of his greatest works for London. Within three years both were in place, but only gradually did I begin to register their presence. They permeated into my consciousness as threads in the tissue of experience, which a great city weaves in the minds of those who live in her.

And that is how it should be.

Bloomsbury – for the Trades Union Council

Epstein Sculptures
figures 1 and 2

In 1956, the aged sculptor took up his tools to begin carving a huge block of stone, which had been set up before a volcanic backdrop of veined Italian marble in the forecourt of TUC House (figure 1). By that time Epstein had grown, in the words of Kenneth Clark, from “a master of style” to “a master of truth”. This monument to the dead of two world wars is really a first artistic vision of the magnitude of the powers unleashed by science and technology – and thus a fitting archaeological treasure to be excavated from the rubble of London in some remote future after World War 3. Everybody knows Einstein’s horrified prediction that, if WW3 is fought with nuclear weapons then WW4 will be fought with bows and arrows. Much less well known is the reaction of Edwin Muir to this prediction of wars being fought with bows and arrows: thank goodness, then we shall get back to The Horses (– a poem which T.S. Eliot described as the first poem of the Atomic Age). Epstein’s vision is less Arcadian (or Orcadian) than Muir’s, and more cosmic.

His volcanic marble backdrop dwarfs even his huge stone figures, it spears upward like a rocket launching into outer space (figure 1). The figures are not human – (at least not Homo Sapiens sapiens) and yet their gesture is the essence of what we humans call “human” – what the Bantu call “ubuntu”: fellowship and sympathy.

By the time Epstein conceived this sculpture he was long experienced in two opposing aspects of pictorial art, which he now combined. The first is the massive, impersonal public statement in an open space and on a large scale, with an emphasis on setting the work into its architectural and civic context. The other aspect of his art is the small scale portrait bust: an intimate exploration of an individual psyche, revealed by the set of a head and by fleeting expressions over a face. Now, in this colossal statue Epstein has combined a massive statement about public disaster with a haunting exploration of individual suffering. His two creatures are human enough for us to sympathize (figure 2). The dead one is as dead as dead can be; look at the limp arm (copied from Michelangelo’s pietà in St Peter’s, a public image instantly recognizable), the thin paralytic leg and the head flopped back. The ineluctable drag of gravity on the corpse is underlined by downward streaks of sooty patina, in a way that Epstein surely foresaw while he was carving the white stone. The creature who carries the corpse stands like Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms (another public image, “as instantly comprehensible as the clink of ready cash”). But the sculptor has given to the lives of the two creatures a facial expression and a psyche, which reflect not only sorrow but also a philosophy and a faith, which transcend Shakespeare’s concept. Shakespeare’s Lear, reduced by elemental exposure and grievous loss, ends up a bewildered, beaten animal:

Howl, howl, howl, howl!

Any philosophy in Shakespeare’s play is either a cynical nihilism:

As flies to wanton boys, so are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport

or (as T.S. Eliot pointed out) a sententious stoicism:

Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. / Ripeness is all.

to which Eliot opposes the Christian philosophy from Dante’s Paradiso:

E ‘n la sua volontade è nostra pace.

With this in mind, I think the bereaved creature’s face reflects a psyche nearer to the Judeo-Christian faith of Epstein and Dante than to Shakespeare’s stoic humanism.

Though He slay me, yet shall I trust in Him.

This is a vision of survival on an astronomic scale; and it sits there in prosaic commercial London, in the Trade Union office block, not a hundred yards from the YWCA where I used to take my English children for their swimming lessons.

Epstein sculptures
figures 3 and 4

The Renaissance archaeologists who dug up Classical Antiquities for the booming Italian art market were well aware that no Greek sculpture is complete without something missing; so a marble Bacchus by young and promising Michelangelo had a protruding front bit drilled out, to give it an air of greater antiquity. On this ground alone, one might say that some works of Epstein became classical antiquities during the sculptor’s lifetime (see the essay on Epstein’s sculptures for the British Medical Association). The memorial figures have not been mutilated, but when I visited London in the 80s, Epstein’s carefully planned backdrop of volcanically veined marble (figures 1 and 2) had already been replaced by monotonous ceramic tiles in a ghastly glassy green, the colour of cheap boiled sweets (figure 3). The stone figures had been scoured back to deathly white, and the patina that reveals their form to the eye of time (figures 1 and 2) had been wiped clean (figure 3): reset to time zero. Anyone who has read Let There Be Sculpture will know what a sin that would have been in Epstein’s eyes. The vandals seemed untroubled by guilt, as witness this proud postcard (figure 3). Resignedly I inquired the motive of the misdeed, and was told that the vandalism was official: it had been committed in the interests of Health & Safety (see also BMA essay). “Who will protect me from my friends?” No doubt the figures are more hygienic after a good scrubbing; and as for their architectural background in the atrium of TUC house, it is safer (and cheaper) to stick up blue-green swimming pool tiles than to attempt anything so tiresome as mundane maintenance on the sculptor’s massive slabs of polished marble. (I wonder if any craft union member lodged a protest against such skimping of the work.) Here is a note from the papers of the late David McAll RA, who assisted Epstein on the monument: 
 “It was carved from a 10 ton block of Roman stone and was originally backed by green Carrara marble running up to the roof; this decayed and has been replaced by green tiles as an economy measure”.

When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold
And Commerce sits on every tree

I hope that my amateur photographs (or preferably better ones) might survive to the 4th or 5th millennium for future archaeologists to reconstruct the architectural setting as the sculptor intended it, and as Londoners of my generation saw it – the way archaeologists of today know from traces of paint that Greek sculpture and its architectural setting were intended to be enhanced with colour, not remain coldly neo-classical white.

I was unable to photograph from near because a glass wall separates the atrium, but figure 4 is a finely expressive closeup of the statue by Geoffrey Ireland (sans patina because photographed when new). It was scanned from the catalogue of the 1980 Epstein centenary exhibition, of which more later (see part six of these essays on Epstein’s busts).

Epstein TUC
figure 5

TUC headquarters are fortunate in having a good piece of sculpture outside as well as in (figure 5); both sculptures are on the theme of solidarity, comradeship and goodwill: a reminder from bygone times, before the Left fell into the arms of Mrs (“there is no such thing as society”) Thatcher and begat Thatcher’s Children – “intensely relaxed about becoming filthy rich”. Woe to the country whose rulers ape the profiteer!

Read the second of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in The Strand