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

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