The Gallery of Lost Art is an immersive, online exhibition that tells the fascinating stories of artworks that have disappeared. Each week, a new story of loss is added
Sculptures for the British Medical Association Building 1908
When installed on the facade of the new British Medical Association headquarters in the Strand in London in 1908, Jacob Epsteins eighteen nude statues were among the most hotly debated artworks in Britain.
Condemned as obscene by some and praised as bracingly modern by others, the monumental sculptures served to establish Epsteins public reputation as one of the most gifted, albeit controversial, artists of the day – but at the expense of embroiling him in what he later described as a thirty years war.
Although the details of the carvings forty feet high were not easily seen from ground level, the nudity of Epsteins figures provoked immediate protests. The sculptor later wrote: Perhaps this was the first time in London that a decoration was not purely decorative; the figures had some fundamentally human meaning, instead of being merely adjuncts to an architects mouldings and cornices.
In the end, however, it was not moral or aesthetic arguments that proved the undoing of Epsteins carvings. Instead, thirty years of acid rain, caused by Londons smog, weakened the stones and in 1937 part of one sculpture became detached, falling into the street below. The sculptures were immediately checked and all protruding sections of the figures – including faces, shoulders and arms, and feet – were chiselled away, despite Epsteins protests as what he saw as blatant vandalism and the revenge of traditionalists who disliked the sculptures.
Epstein lost the war, but his enemies won it only on dubious, and somewhat inglorious, grounds. The broken stumps of his figures can still be seen on the building today.