Look Up at Zimbabwe House | Mutilated Sculptures on the Strand
High up on the walls of Zimbabwe House on the Strand, are sculptures by Jacob Epstein.
But look closer and these are kind of terrifying. Mutilated and damaged, they look centuries-old, but were only unveiled in 1908.
The story behind them is something of a scandal…
Today it’s the Embassy of Zimbabwe and known as Zimbabwe House. But prior to this, 429 Strand was the British Medical Association Headquarters, designed but Charles Holden and completed in 1908.
As part of the design, Holden commissioned the 28-year-old Jacob Epstein to create multiple nude statues to decorate the building.
The idea was to chart the stages of human life from birth to death in 18, 8ft tall, statues.
The finished building in July 1908, British Medical Association Journal – Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons
Almost immediately these attracted attention, with the Evening Standard stoking debate and taking an outraged stance, claiming that such explicit imagery would surely corrupt the minds of young children looking up along the street.
“We are concerned most of all with the effect the figures will produce on the minds of the young people.” – Evening Standard 19 June 1908
The National Vigilance Society agreed. With one of its members; Father Bernard Vaughan, quoted in the same paper saying “I object most emphatically to such indecent and inartistic statuary being thrust upon my view”.
The Standard later reported that it was ‘a form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man, his fiancée, to see’.
But not everyone hated them, in fact the rest of London was mostly ambivalent or in favour of the new statues. High profile artists, critics and even a Bishop, spoke out in favour of them.
For a while there was stalemate and nothing changed. However on 10 June 1937, a piece of masonry fell from the building, injuring the foot of a passersby.
Weighing 9kg (21lbs) it was apparently the head of a statue so the pedestrian was incredibly lucky not to have been more seriously injured.
After an investigation it was found that acid rain was contributing to the loosening of the stonework. So in the interest of public safety, the statues needed to be altered.
But this isn’t the full story.
By this point the building was now owned by the Rhodesian High Commission, who weren’t as happy about their HQ’s decorations.
So although it was partly true that the sculpture were damaged, they were far from a lost cause.
Despite this, any limb, or protruding feature was removed, hacked from the statues. Their haunting, mutilated forms still visible from the Strand today.
Granted Grade II* listed status in 1970, the Historic England listing makes reference to the ‘contentious and subsequently mutilated’ figures by Jacob Epstein.
I’d love to know what you think in the comments. Good riddance they’re gone? Or was this an act of vandalism?
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