Londonist Stalks…Jacob Epstein

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All the works featured in this stalk are also mapped on Platial.

US-born Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) is a colossal figure in 20th Century sculpture. Controversial could almost be his middle name. His various works around London caused outrage in their day, but are now in danger of being forgotten.

Perhaps his most powerful work on show in the capital is ‘Jacob and the Angel’ underneath the central dome of Tate Britain. Being indoors, this incredible sculpture is beyond our scope, but we urge you to take a trip to the gallery and spend some time in its company. Likewise, many busts, bronzes and sculptures from his prolific career can be found in the galleries and churches of London. His ‘Rock Drill’, also in the Tate, must surely have been the inspiration for the robot troops in the newer Star Wars movies. But we’re concerned here with his outdoor sculptures. On with the stalk…

BMA building, Strand (1908)

The 18 statuettes (see picture at top) that adorn the second floor of what is now Zimbabwe House were the young Epstein’s first London commission. The building was designed by the great Charles Holden, who also gave us Senate House and a medley of underground stations. Epstein was asked to decorate the façade with artwork showing the great men of medicine. He thought otherwise and proceeded to sculpt, in situ, an assortment of larger-than-life, mostly naked figures called the ‘Ages of Man’. The result shocked Edwardian society. The Evening Standard, as reactionary now as it’s always been, famously described them as: “A form of statuary which no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man, his fiancée, to see.” As always with such things, they flocked in their thousands to view such an outrage. Their present defacement has nothing to do with angry crowds, however. In the 1930s it literally began raining men when a crumbling stone penis crashed to the floor. The building’s owners were ordered to secure the carvings, and all overhanging parts, be they heads, limbs or cocks, were hacked away.

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WH Hudson Memorial, Rima figure (1925)

In an obscure and forgotten acre of Hyde Park, a little North of the Serpentine, sits an enclosed area set aside for wildlife. At the southern end of this enclosure is a dilapidated bird garden dedicated to the slightly obscure writer and naturalist William Hudson. The garden is in a state of neglect, with filthy ponds and lichen-ridden flagstones. At the centre sits a sorry-looking stone with the barely discernable figures of a nude female and assorted birds etched onto its face. This is Epstein’s Rima relief, named for one of Hudson’s characters. It’s hard to imagine how such an innocuous piece of work could cause any emotion, never mind anger, but Epstein had a knack for provoking such feelings. The carving was once attacked with paint, but has since suffered a more serious defacement by the ravages of nature. Time for some restoration work, we think.

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Day and Night, 55 Broadway (1928)

This iconic building was constructed in the 1930s to act as a headquarters for London Underground, and was also designed by Charles Holden. As usual, Holden wished to decorate the building in sculpture, and commissioned the leading artists of the day (including Henry Moore and Eric Gill), to decorate the outside of the building. To the consternation of many (still scandalised by the figures on the Strand, and the Rima nudity), Jacob Epstein was invited to submit two works: Day and Night. The former, and most controversial, appears to show a rampant act of paedophilia. Legend has it that the smaller figure once bore a much longer penis, but this was truncated by Epstein after another bout of public outrage, and even offers of resignation from senior London Underground staff. A good account of the controversy surrounding the works is given in the best book about London from last year: ‘From Here to Here

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The Hovering Madonna, Cavendish Square (1952)

This one is beautiful, whether you’re religious or not. The perfectly proportioned Madonna and child adorn the wall above the arched entrance to Deans Mews. Epstein carved the figures, unusually, from lead. The nuns of Deans Mews were not best pleased when they heard who the sculptor was to be, though the grace of the work (and uncharacteristic lack of phalluses) won them over.

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Smuts, Parliament Square (1956)

The only statue by Epstein (that we could find) on display in London. Jan Smuts was leader of South Africa for 14 years (1919-1924 and 1939-1948) and argued against the segregation of races (coining the terms ‘apartheid’ and ‘holistic’). Here, Epstein has him poised with the lightness of an ice skater, in contrast to the nearby lumbering bulk of Smuts’ former commander, Winston Churchill. Smuts looks resolutely forward to a less divided South Africa, while keeping one foot in the imperialistic past.

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Rush of Green, Edinburgh Gate (1959)

Here, Epstein shows off his prowess with bronze, in this slightly disturbing sculpture close to Knightsbridge. The arrested motion captured in the group reminds us of former stalkee Enzo Plazzotta. The energy of the piece is incredible, especially give that Epstein was still honing it on the day he died, aged 79. (The bronze was posthumously cast.) A group of lanky-limbed individuals and their dog bound towards Hyde Park. The diabolic character chivvying them along is Greek God Pan, playing a tune on his eponymous pipes. It is, at first, hard to think of a more inappropriate setting, hidden away near a virtually disused access road. But you look what’s behind them, and you think of the beautiful green park before them, and their emotional dash makes perfect sense.

How’s our stalking? And who should we stalk next? Let us know in the comments.

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  • hele

    Jacob and the Angel is no longer under the dome at the Tate Britain. It’s at the top of the stairs which lead from the main hall down to the new side entrance of the building. If you like his stuff, don’t miss the extremely powerful Pieta sculpture in the central courtyard of the TUC building in Great Russell St. You can go into the cafe and see it from there.