Jacob Epstein: Scandal on the Strand
High up on the walls of Zimbabwe House, formally the home of the British Medical Association on the Strand, are the remnants of sculptures by the esteemed Jacob Epstein.
Little did he know he was about to cause a scandal.
In his first public commission, he was asked to create life-size statues for the exterior of the building and the BMA apparently had envisaged decorative, allegorical figures or famous names in medical history.
However – and this just shows that you should always give a creative a clear brief – Epstein produced 18 huge, nude (and realistic) figures celebrating the seven ages of man.
It’s hard to track down images of the originals but above is a shot taken at the Henry Moore Institute, where the plaster casts were exhibited. Henry Moore was a very vocal and important champion of Epstein’s work.
It’s strange to us now, we’re used to provocative imagery used in art and marketing all the time. But in 1908 these cause utter outrage.
One Father Bernard Vaughan, a member of the moralistic National Vigilance Society, led the attack against the statues, writing in the Evening Standard;
‘As a Christian citizen in a Christian city, I claim the right to say that I object most emphatically to such indecent and inartistic statuary being thrust upon my view’.
The Evening Standard itself also took a strong stance against the sculptures, warning that Epstein had erected ‘a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man, his fiancée, to see’.
Inevitably, Londoners flocked to see what all the fuss was about.
But what was the fuss? Most people deemed them immoral, with the fact they were nude being one of the main provocations. The complaints also disliked the fact they were too sexual, but at the same time too ugly, the depictions were humans at different stages of life so it seemed that the image of sagging skin was too much to bear.
The sculptor himself wanted to portray figures with realism, to have them contain deep human feeling rather than just being decoration on architecture.
He said “The Study of the human being is frightfully important.”
BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM?
If you’ve ever seen these on the Strand, you’ll have noticed they’re a little worse for wear, like they’ve melted away. But that’s not the full story.
It’s worth noting that the BMA wanted to preserve them, but a combination of two events sealed their fates.
In the 1930s The Rhodesian High Commission bought the building and were not fans of their new home’s decoration and in 1937 a section of the Portland Stone (worn by acid rain and London’s smog) fell onto the street, conveniently giving a pretext to destroyed the sculptures.
Epstein fought to have them restored, claiming this was blatant vandalism, but they were checked and all protruding sections of the figures (faces, shoulders, arms and feet) were chipped away, now we can only see the butchered remains.
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