Tuesday, 15 June 2010

11-14 Cavendish Square W1

The houses on the north side of Cavendish Square are the legacy of the plutocratic James Brydges, Duke of Chandos, who owned the land and projected a very grand town house there. Unfortunately he lost a bundle on the South Sea Bubble and it was never built. Eventually a speculative builder created a pair of small villas on the site. It is a bit of an unsatisfying composition - the space between the two gives the impression of opening onto something really impressive but it never led to anything more than stables, a turning circle for coaches and laundries.
In the 19th century, Nos 11, 12 and 13 had become a convent with a tunnel underneath the road.
After bomb damage in WW2, the sisters commissioned the architect Louis Osman to restore the houses and create a bridge between the two. He approached Jacob Epstein for a Virgin and Child that would 'levitate' above the arch. He also specified that it should be cast in lead, which the sisters had rather a lot of, from the bombed roof of Nos 11-12.
Then there was a bit of a crisis, by which I mean a hell of a row. Osman had failed to inform the Mother Superior that the sculptor was, not to put too fine a point on it, Jewish. She only found out when the Arts Council congratulated her on her 'innovative choice of artist'. She freaked out and withdrew the commission. It took gallons of soft soap and Osman's offer to resign before the commission was reinstated, and even then Epstein had to appear before the nuns to be lectured on the significance of his own work.
The piece was finally unveiled in 1953.
Possibly because of the unintended last-minute intervention of the Mother Superior, the piece is one of Epstein's most accessible works. Mary looks down on her son as he looks out on us with arms outspread in blessing. Both are dressed in robes that wind round them - are they clothes or winding sheets?


Meg said...

I work as a librarian in 11-13 Cavendish Square (now the home of The King's Fund) and off the street questions about the Epstein are definitely some of our most common enquiries!

I believe it was also one of the first post-war public statues.

Hels said...

Does the son look out on us with arms outspread in blessing? Or is it a gentle prefiguration of the crucifixion yet to come?

Chris Partridge said...

Thanks Meg. I should have mentioned that the King's Fund lives there now, especially as the parts round the back have been re-ordered to make them a lot better looking (and provide a bike park, which I particularly admired from the saddle of my folder when I visited).

Anonymous said...

I must say that both persons look like entrants in a wet-shroud competition, though Mary's womanly features have been discreetly de-emphasised (or should I say "flattened"?).

As you can tell, I am trying to find something nice to say about the sculpture and am failing. Perhaps I should go along and see it for myself.

It amuses me that the nuns managed to palm off their lead onto the sculptor.

Momo Luna S!gnals said...

Oh wow a bit strange but very beautiful!