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

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