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 Epstein’s 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 Epstein’s 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 Epstein’s 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 architect’s mouldings and cornices.’
In the end, however, it was not moral or aesthetic arguments that proved the undoing of Epstein’s carvings. Instead, thirty years of acid rain, caused by London’s 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 Epstein’s 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.