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.
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’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).
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.
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.
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.