Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Stalking Epstein Through London

Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) was commissioned to create public art in some of London's most prominent places. But he had a knack for creating work which appalled and disgusted. Partly this was because his work was an early manifestation of abstract modernism ("he took the brick bats and he took them first" said Henry Moore) but also because his nudes, in particular, seemed to touch a nerve with the British public. As well as being vandalised by those who took umbrage at his particular vision, his work has suffered the indignity of developers and the passing of time. On a bitterly cold day we took a trip to see how they were holding up.

I used to walk past this sculpture every day on my way to college, and would always be taken aback by its size and scale in its setting. Madonna and Child (1953) was originally installed for the Convent of the Holy Child of Jesus but the nuns have moved on and the building is now the offices of the King's Fund. Allegedly the nuns were nervous of Epstein's involvement, but this is a majestic piece of religious sculpture, with great heft and sensitivity but without sentimentality. A walk underneath the sculpture is worthwhile, if a little nerve wracking.

Only a few minutes' walk away is Pieta (1957), a stark contrast to the previous work, a mother and son of completely different ilk. This is a war memorial, one which is grimly effective in highlighting the futility of conflict. It is situated in the courtyard of Congress House, the headquarters of the Trades Union Congress, whose members it commemorates. Sadly access is difficult as the courtyard is not a public building, and this covert shot was taken from the side entrance to the building, under the beady eye of security. On good days it is apparently possible to ask at reception for access. She is restrained somewhat by her swimming pool aspect, and google brings up images from the statue's early life with a stone background that had rather more gravitas - but was allegedly too expensive to maintain.

Within a featureless sanctuary for birds (replete with empty feeders), next to the greenhouses north of the Serpentine, Rima (1925) is also a memorial, but to one person, the writer W.H. Hudson. Hudson was a naturalist who is most famous now for founding the RSPB, but who was also a fiction writer. Rima is the heroine, a type of bird spirit, from his novel "Green Mansions". Her bare breasts led Stanley Baldwin to a state of shock at its unveiling, and it became known as the Hyde Park Atrocity in the press. It is hard to feel this sense of shock now, but the Royal Academy campaigned for its removal and it was daubed with paint (green paint, ironically) on more than one occasion. George Bernard Shaw and a host of other public intellectuals spoke out against such attacks, but although any chance of it being so threatened in these times is remote, the public are kept at a good distance by a leaf filled rill, iron railings, and particularly aggressive squirrels. It is however, under constant attack from lichen and fallen leaves as a result of its location, and has only recently been renovated.

This is the house that now stands at the site of Epstein's studio, in Queen's Gate Mews, South Kensington. Epstein lived outside of London, in Loughton at the far reaches of the Central line, where there is another blue plaque.

Close to Epstein's studio is Rush of Green (1959), one of his last works. A family in bronze, with bounding dog and a particularly demonic Pan in tow, rush towards the open expanses of Hyde Park (or into the flow of traffic, depending on the time of day...). There is something slightly sinister in my mind about this one, the child and the dog rush freely, but the air of desperation in the adult figures gives this a certain ambivalence. This is heightened by its location, on a pedestal between the traffic lights at the foot of oligarch-housing One Hyde Park, where in recent years it has been joined by some really banal millionaire junk.

Below is undoubtedly Epstein's most notorious work, on the facade of the London Underground HQ, 55 Broadway. Commissioned by Charles Holden, master architect (who insisted that the statues were carved in situ; whether this was a publicity stunt or not is open to question) "Night" and "Day" (pictured, 1928) led to protests about the pagan natures of the figures and undertones of paedophilia. This was expressed most deeply in anxieties about the size of the child figure's member in "Day". Epstein was forced to reduce the size of the penis after protests from the public. The figure was tarred and feathered on numerous occasions and Epstein was not to receive a London commission for many years. 

Above is the statue of General Smuts in Parliament Square, the leader of South Africa for 14 years, founder of the League of Nations and the only person to sign the peace treaties of the First and Second World War. Unveiled after Epstein's death in 1960, the committee that commissioned him were at pains to ensure he wasn't going to create a monstrosity, and he appears to play it safe but it is still idiosyncratic. The figure has a light balletic movement, and a carefree air particularly in comparison with the other figures in the Square, which are weighed down by their reputations. Smuts' reputation now is another matter entirely, but this certainly shows Epstein was capable of representing statesmanship in a rather detached fashion.

Below, another Charles Holden, and another controversy. Epstein was asked to provide the figures on the new British Medical Association building in 1908. This building, on the Strand, is now Zimbabwe house, and the story behind these sculptures has the ring of urban myth. "Ages of Man" comprises a frieze of figures in the niches of the building. Needless to say, these nude figures caused an absolute uproar when unveiled, upsetting the BMA, the press, and anyone who cared enough to be upset by such a thing. Eventually the furore about such a display of graphic realism died down, but when the new owners of the building moved in, the genitalia, limbs and heads were removed, allegedly because of the danger of water getting in the limestone, and the risk of bits of statue falling off (indeed, there is a myth that someone was struck by a penis, but we have not been able to find any proof of this incident ever occuring and instead appears to have been a convenient excuse).

Lastly, "Woman taking off her dress" (unfinished, erected 1972), or "Woman walking against the wind" is an ambiguous piece (helped by the two titles, subtle eroticism or Miranda-like farce depending on your viewpoint) situated in Roper's Gardens on the Embankment by Chelsea Old Church. It is easy to miss this one, and indeed I have, despite walking past it numerous times, situated in a rather sterile "garden", with dog toilet (and accompanying sign to that effect), vague air of anti-social activity and windswept barren aspect right next to the River (I did say it was cold). An interesting statue, but right on the floor on a pebbledash plinth, you don't really see it at its best. The reason for it being there is that this was the site of another of Epstein's studios, which was destroyed in a bombing raid. This is Epstein at his most primitive and impressionistic and is an understated gem, not least because you can actually get close enough to see the chisel marks, unlike most of his other public works.

Like most public art, these sculptures are easily ignored in the landscape, which provides an interesting contrast to their controversial pasts. These are works that have been the subject of great scrutiny and some violence, but now have a forlorn, forgotten air, despite the high esteem in which Epstein is held by art historians.


Mortlake is an odd district of London, shaped like a jagged scarf, cupping to the south bank of the Thames between Kew and Barnes, a clutch of busy roads flowing through the shadow of a soon-to-close Budweiser brewery, a  hidden suburbia where the Oxbridge boat race finishes near the industrial works. Tommy Cooper is interred in the expansive crematorium, Turner enjoyed painting the riverside lime trees of Mortlake Terrace. Last September, a man fell out of the sky, falling 1000s of feet before dying on impact with leafy Portman Avenue; a stowaway from Angola (still unidentified) who lost their grip of the undercarriage during the final few minutes of Heathrow's flightpath.  

Perhaps, it's the name Mortlake itself which conjures a leading morbid curiosity, but then again a closer look at the origin the name suggests an Anglo-Saxon salmon stream. It probably says more about Mortlake that its most well-known resident is John Dee. As a mathematician, navigator, Astrologer Royal, alchemist, spy, cryptographer and altogether mystical proponent to Elizabeth I, John Dee lived in his mother's house opposite St Mary The Virgin Mortlake. Nothing remains of Dee's house and library today, in fact some modern flats (called John Dee House) now occupy the site, however an ancient arch in the churchyard behind St Mary's is rumoured to be a remnant from the building, when he died in 1609 he was buried in an unmarked central plot towards the south side of the chancel whilst his previous wives were buried in the grounds.
So with all of this hanging in the air we plotted a trip to seek out the remarkably strange tomb of  Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 - 1890) this time in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen's Roman Catholic Church, situated beyond the first roadside St Mary's. Burton was such a polymath as to put even Dee's well strung bow to shame. He was a writer, soldier, geographer, explorer, translator, linguist, poet, spy, fencer, orientalist and diplomat. He traveled to Mecca in disguise, fought in the Crimean War, tracked the source of the Nile to Lake Victoria, translated One Thousand And One Nights and the Kama Sutra, amongst a complete wealth of other works.

When Burton died in 1890 of a heart-attack in Italy, his wife Isabel became distraught, destroying his journals and manuscripts, before starting work on a somewhat wholesome biography glossing over his obsessive interest in sexuality and a decidedly shady episode linking him to the murder of a boy. Returning to London, Westminster Abbey declined a final resting place and so Isabel chose Mortlake for his internment, deciding on a mausoleum, inspired by Burton's dying wish to lie with her for eternity in a desert tent. The ambitious project was funded by public subscription and further embellished by the earnings of said biography.

After navigating the confusing, looping roads, footpaths watched from treehouses and high walls surrounding Burton's resting place, the church's entrance can be found on North Worple Way, along a stretch of concrete railway walling. Walk through the courtyard, amid deflating balloons and choose the veranda door on the left to gain access to the graveyard. The Burton tomb lies in a quiet corner of the plot to the right of the Catholic church, and its truly a sight to wonder at, standing thirteen foot tall in the glum corner of the graveyard, studied by nearby houses. 

Isabel designed the tomb in the shape of an actual rippling tent they had made for their own travels, only made out of sandstone and replete with Islamic crescents and Christian detail, including a gilt star of Bethlehem on its apex. A window on the rear panel of the tent allows visitors today to peer into the tomb via a short suspended ladder. Originally this window was stained glass, flooding the mausoleum with light (Burton did not like the dark) but years of vandalism leading up to the mid-1970s meant a restoration project was badly needed, the tomb's original door having been since bricked up and plastered over. Inside Isabel (who died seven year after her beloved) and Richard's coffins are both visible side by side, cloaked in dust, cobwebs and a variety of intriguing ephemera. Eastern lamps, water flasks, a white marble altar, a broken crucifix, candles, religious paintings, figurines, festoons of camel bells and funereal flowers decorate the inside making for many minutes of interested conjecture and pressing up of cameras to the toughened glass. Purportedly, air currents slowly move around the tattered remains and decaying assemblages over the years so that every time you return to the window you'll notice something has moved position or changed. There are other more decidedly magical explanations proffered for these alterations too but why doesn't that surprise me, we're in Mortlake, where people fall out of the sky, so when do we return?