Monday, 10 September 2012

Art: 'This work has never been commissioned at all' - Jacob Epstein's Madonna and Child (1950-52)

Forming part of the newly rebuilt Convent of the Holy Child Jesus, Cavendish Square, London, Jacob Epstein’s Madonna and Child (1950-52) is an impressive sight. With its diamond-shaped composition, and over four metres in length, the work depicts the Madonna and Christ child draped in simple clothing. The Christ’s arms are outstretched echoing as if prefiguring His death by crucifixion. The Madonna stares downward, deep in contemplation.

Epstein wrote very little about the Madonna and Child in his autobiography, only dedicating one paragraph to its discussion. He wrote that:

No work of mine has brought so
many tributes from so many
diverse quarters. One which particularly
pleased me by reasons of its
spontaneity was from a bus driver.

Halting his bus as he passed the
statue he suddenly saw me standing
by and called out across the
road, 'Hi Governor, you've made a
good job of it.' A less aesthetic but
equally spontaneous comment was
overhead when the cockney owner
of a bedraggled pony and cart halted
beneath the statue and observed
wistfully to his mate, 'Think of that
now. A solid lump of lead.' Fortunately
the statue is suspended
about 20 feet from the ground. (1)

Epstein’s career was revitalised following this project. Epstein had not received a public commission since his involvement in the Temple of the Winds project at the London underground railway headquarters in 1928. Throughout the 1950s Epstein was commissioned to produce a number of high-profile works. The purpose of this article is to examine the unusual circumstances surrounding the production of this work and shed some light onto the Madonna and Child’s critical reception.

Madonna and Child was commissioned by architect Louis Osman, who had been employed by the convent to rebuild parts of the bomb-damaged square. As part of the rebuild, Osman conceived of a covered bridge to link the buildings on the west and east sides of the square, which until that point had only been linked by an underground basement. As the bridge was covered, a large flat space was made available, which Osman considered the perfect space for a fully realised sculpture.

Speaking at an Ordinary General Meeting of the Architectural Association on 28 April 1954, Osman outlined the unusual process of negotiation which the production and installation of this work required. Osman asserted that: ‘this work has never been commissioned at all, which is most unusual, particularly for a work of this size, costing some 5,000 [pounds sterling].’ (2) Though Osman was responsible for the rebuilding of the damaged convent, he did not have the authority to commission works of art to be attached to them. As Osman explained: ‘I had no authority and no commission and no money.’ (4)

Osman considered the idea of a modelled sculpture ‘over the arch so that it would rest on nothing’. Osman continued:

The sculpture could not recede
against but must project away from
the wall over the arch. This immediately
gave me an interesting plastic
form and also suggested a religious
subject in which it was
appropriate that the sculpture
should not rest on anything but
should have levitation of its own,
not being concerned with gravity. (5)


To Osman, Epstein was the perfect candidate to embark on such a task. Osman saw in Epstein’s modelled work, a style which: ‘linked with that of Donatello, right in the main stream of Palladian art and Palladian theory. I also knew him to be an artist deeply concerned with religious themes and passionately fond of children.’ (6) Although not explicit, Osman seemed to imply that Epstein’s carved work was not of the high standard of his modelled work, arguing that:

His wonderful gift of modelled
form had not been made use of by
any architect before. He was a man
of seventy, but previously had only
been employed to do carved work
in relation to a building. [...]
Epstein had not in my opinion been
used properly. (7)

Osman made it a condition that the work must be modelled with a religious theme and was to be cast in lead rather than the traditional bronze because ‘If it were in bronze it would splash and make unpleasant stains on the stone’. (8)

Osman wrote to Epstein outlining his idea for the sculpture; Epstein responded the very next day and was thrilled by the opportunity. Epstein began work in earnest, and within a week had produced a small maquette for the work. Osman was thrilled with the design, stating that: ‘it surpassed beyond measure what I had imagined as sculpture, and was quite convinced that here was a masterpiece.’ (9) However, the maquette was not as well received by the authorities at the convent as one might expect. Osman took the sketch to show the nuns. When the maquette was shown to the nuns, they saw the design as being ‘alien to their own conception’ (10) of a Madonna and Child group. After meeting with Epstein, the nuns urged him to alter the face of the Madonna, changing it to one which was more contemplative than on the maquette, in which the visage held an outgoing and cheerful expression. The first design, which used Epstein’s long-time mistress Kathleen Garman, was altered and replaced by a portrait of pianist Marcella Barzetti. Lord Kenneth Clark also stepped in at this point and said to the nuns: ‘Take it. Take it’. (11) This intervention, coupled with Epstein’s concession over the Madonna’s face settled any doubts which the nuns had about the initial design.


The proposed Madonna was made public with an article appearing in The Times on 10 January 1952. The author wrote of the restoration of Cavendish Square and noted that a sculpture had been commissioned, ‘13ft high’, to adorn the bridge of the convent. The author continued:

Mr Jacob Epstein, at the request of
the architect has made a sketch for
the sculpture, in the form of the
Madonna and Child, designed to be
cast in lead. The sketch, which
gives promise to be a work of real
nobility has been approved by all
the authorities concerned and, in
view of the prominence of the site
and the opportunity presented of
furnishing London with an important
work of religious art, the Arts
Council has made a grant towards
the cost.

This has enabled Mr. Epstein to make a start on modelling the group to full size. The owners of the building have also set aside money for the sculpture, but a further sum is still required to complete and cast the group and fix it in position. If this is successfully raised, the work should be in position in about six months’ time. (12)

With the bridge under construction and the statue under way, Osman had still not secured funding for the Madonna and Child. Applications for funding were made to the Arts Council and to the Contemporary Arts Society, with the former providing 500 [pounds sterling], and the latter turning down the application. Costs were kept down in a number of ways: firstly, Epstein’s fee was nominal; secondly, the lead used for casting was to come from the roof of the destroyed convent; and thirdly, the sculpture was modelled over a wooden, rather than a bronze, skeleton. Indeed, the budget was so tight for the project that Lord Kenneth Clark, took it upon himself to write a letter to The Times in an effort to raise more money. Though donations had been received from the nuns and other private benefactors, this was only enough to cover the cost of producing a plaster cast of the model. Clark wrote that:

It can now be seen that the work
will be of arresting beauty and dignity,
entirely appropriate to its setting,
and will certainly be one of the
first pieces of sculpture permanently
exhibited in London. Apart from
a small balance of donations and a
gift of metal, however, there are
now no funds available for the casting
and the fixing in position of this
great work. Although a considerable
sum is required, those who
wish to be associated with this
work will help to make its completion
possible by sending donations,
however small, to the Cavendish
Square Group Appeal ... (13)

Osman noted that due to Lord Clark’s appeal ‘the money trickled in’. (14) However, the monies that were received still did not come close to covering the cost of casting in lead. With two tonnes of lead being procured from the damaged roof of the convent the Art Bronze Foundry agreed to cast the work for a small fee, believing that this would gain them positive publicity.

The critical reception of the Madonna and Child was almost entirely positive. In a review in The Manchester Guardian, for example, Eric Newton wrote that: ‘It is not perhaps Mr Epstein’s most inventive work, from a purely formal point of view, but it is one of the most serious and deeply felt.’ (15)

As well as the criticism of the Madonna and Child from an artistic standpoint, there was another line of engagement which dealt with the group from a wholly Christian perspective. Writing in Liturgical Arts in 1955, sculptor John Bunting reflected upon Epstein’s Madonna and Child as a piece of Christian sculpture. Bunting began the article by detailing the dogmatic process by which the Madonna and Child become dedicated as a piece of religious sculpture fit for the purposes of worship:

When the Cardinal-Archbishop of
London blessed a sculpture by
Epstein, he dedicated it to the service
of God. The Church has traditionally
exercised this divine blessing,
and through this God-given
power the Church transforms our
actions so that they are "born not of
blood or of nature or of man but of
God." It is the Church's mission,
and such was the Cardinal's mission
when he blessed the new statue
of the Madonna and Child for
the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus
in Cavendish Square. The blessing
was a kind of baptism. (16)

As ‘a kind of baptism’ we can see this dedication as a ceremony of purification and acceptance. Indeed, this was not merely a representation of Christ and His Mother, but a representation which had been sanctioned by the Church, and therefore God, for the purpose of religious service. This point was of the upmost importance to Bunting, who worried that Epstein, as a non-Catholic (Epstein was Jewish), would not have the sensitivity towards Christ to produce such a work. Bunting explained his reasoning thus:

I do not propose about the artistic
or aesthetic qualities of a work
which I admire. There is a problem
that made the nuns apprehensive
for similar reasons that I wish to
consider. It is a problem the Church
must face when she cooperates
with modern artists. How can a
man who is not Christian, let us
suppose, produce a Christian work
of art? (17)

The same question was asked by Cottie Burland in the religious journal Common Ground some four years later, and concluded that Epstein was able to produce deeply felt Christian art because he was a prophet, she explained:

Somehow this man got at us, and if
that is not the function of a prophet,
what is? One of the strangest things
about the art of Jacob Epstein was
that, as a Jew, he could give us such
a magnificent statement of Christian
faith. At Llandaff his Christ in
Majesty stands floating before its
curved background. His Lazarus is
no sentimental resurrection, but the
victim of a miracle, bursting grimly
from the bonds of death--one who
is raised by the power of God is a
frightening being. Or go to
Cavendish Square and look around
until you see his bronze Virgin and
Child, and look in that Child's eyes.
This Jewish prophet indeed had
things to tell us Christians. (18)

Bunting did not make such lofty claims and instead posited a quasi-sociological argument which appealed to the influence of Christian culture and ethics over Western history, arguing that:

we are all, consciously or unconsciously,
Christian through our
Christian past, so that it is impossible
to not to be in some sense Christian,
then I wonder how it is possible
for a man who is not a Catholic
to produce a Catholic work of art?
Or perhaps there is no such thing as
a Catholic work of art? Or are all
real works of art Catholic? (19)

Bunting never fully resolved the issue of a non-Christian producing Christian works of art. The implication, though, is that Epstein successfully managed to portray some kind of religious truth which seemed to appeal to Bunting’s sense of Catholicism. Indeed, it was the consideration of the Madonna and Child in terms of religious art which led a critic writing in The Times in 1958 to note that:

Going almost daily through
Cavendish Square in London, I am
increasingly impressed by Sir Jacob
Epstein's Madonna and Child for the
Convent of the Child Jesus, as a
masterpiece in which the sculptor's
personal power is happily subdued
in its purpose and is a most fitting
reminder of the existence of a religious
building there. (20)

The key argument in this passage would suggest that in order to be seen as a religious work of art, it is not simply enough for a piece to be of a religious figure or to be placed in or on a religious building, but that it must foster a sense of worship and reverence within the viewer. The author wrote that Epstein’s ‘personal power is happily subdued’ within the Madonna and Child, and this, it would seem, is most important. By making small concessions towards iconography and generalized stylization, Epstein subdued the vital aspects of his work. By doing this, Epstein produced what has been perceived as a successful piece of Christian sculpture.

What is clear from this case study is that the Madonna and Child was highly regarded by art critics and religious observers alike. The work was acceptable because it was a recognisable form and suggested its subject through its imagery. This case study is testament to how passion, commitment and charity can yield great things.

(1.) Osman, Louis, ‘Architect, Sculptor and Client’ in, Architectural Association Journal, (Issue 70, 1954), p.7

(2.) Ibid p.11

(3.) Ibid p.10

(4.) Ibid p.10

(5.) Ibid p.11

(6.) Ibid pp.10-11

(7.) Ibid p.11

(8.) Ibid p.11

(9.) Ibid p.11

(10.) Ibid p.13

(11.) Archives of the Convent of the Holy Jesus Christ, Mayfield, Sussex

(12.) Anon., ‘Epstein Group for Cavendish Square’, The Times, (10 January 1952), p.2

(13.) Clark, Kenneth, ‘Cavendish Square Group’, The Times, (23 May 1952), p.12

(14.) Osman, Louis, ‘Architect, Sculptor and Client’, p.13

(15.) Newton, Eric, ‘Madonna and Child’, The Manchester Guardian, (15 May 1953), p.7

(16.) Bunting, John, ‘Reflections of Epstein’s Madonna’ in, Liturgical Arts, (Issue XXIII, February 1955), p.43

(17.) Bunting, John, ‘Reflections of Epstein’s Madonna’, p.43

(18.) Burland, Cottie A, ‘Sir Jacob Epstein—a Retrospective Comment’ in, Common Ground (Winter, 1959), pp.12-13

(19.) Bunting, John, ‘Reflections of Epstein’s Madonna’, p.43

(20.) Anon., ‘The Modern Aspect of Christian Art’, The Times, (6 May 1958), p.3

This article originally appeared in Art and Christianity, May 24th 2011.

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