Looking up in London: Epstein’s British Medical Association Sculptures

Charlotte Hollands, Public Catalogue Foundation Volunteer, has been casting her eyes up, instead of down at the ground, and has discovered a wealth of fascinating sculptures above her head:

‘Public sculptures found up above us are often hidden in plain sight. Many are proudly placed above underground station entrances or tucked tightly into the façades of public buildings. Being above our eye line, they are often neglected from the appreciation they deserve.

During my walk to the Public Catalogue Foundation offices in Covent Garden in London, I travel along The Strand, often bustling along with the rest of the city, my eyes down and concentrating on crossing the traffic safely. Yet since I started researching for my Art History dissertation a year ago, I feel like I’ve been let into a little secret. As I cross the road, if I look up at Zimbabwe House, 429 The Strand, and just above the arched windows, there features a number of stone-carved sculptures, which appear as if they have blended into the facade of the building.

These are Epstein’s 18 sculptures designed in 1906–1908 for the British Medical Association building. American-born British sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880–1959) was commissioned by the building’s architect, Charles Holden, to create sculptures which embodied the work of the BMA. Thus, these sculptures depict the various ages of man, with titles of Youth, Infancy (The Newborn), Mentality (or The Brain), Chemical Research, Maternity, Primal Energy and Form Emerging from Chaos (or Matter), with Epstein leaving some of the individual sculptures with no official title.

Epstein’s carvings were met with mixed reviews. He was, of course, a modern sculptor, which raised both fear and praise from the public and the art world. The 8ft high sculptures in Portland Stone were met with a distinct criticism of their realistic portrayal of the nude body, opposing the classic, beautiful iconographic nudes already seen in public sculptures. So much so, that in 1908 the Evening Standard and St James’s Gazette strongly campaigned against Epstein’s figures, but after much debate, the sculptures remained in situ, with the support of the BMA.

In 1935, however, the Southern Rhodesian Government (the new owners of the building after the BMA) also threatened to remove the sculptures, with a final breaking point in 1937, when the head of one of the sculptures fell to the ground injuring a pedestrian. It has since been suggested that this type of Portland Stone was particularly susceptible to acid found in the atmosphere which led to the severe erosion of the sculptures. Epstein had also been known to describe the continual furore surrounding his sculptures as the ‘thirty years’ war’. This potential danger from erosion resulted in Epstein’s carvings being ‘cut back’; hence only the ruins of the sculptures remain visible to us today, on what is now Zimbabwe House, home to the Embassy of Zimbabwe.

It is sometimes difficult to comprehend that a collection of sculptures met with such furious debate at its conception, now quietly exist, often unnoticed and partially obscured by trees on a busy main street in Central London. So my advice is to always look up when walking in a busy city, as you never know what you may see and what stories can be discovered.

If this post has interested you, there is a particularly good essay written by Sarah Crellin, titled ‘Let There Be History: Epstein’s BMA House Sculptures’ in Modern British Sculpture edited by Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson, 2011.’

Advertisements