Sculptors’ Papers from the Henry Moore Institute Archive

Being prominent in the public eye, public sculpture in Britain periodically sparks a rumpus followed by a long-smouldering debate, surprising in a country often accused of not taking its art very seriously. British public sculpture has had its fair share of such confrontations over the last century, as a new exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery demonstrates. It is one of those excellent small, rather low-key shows that can easily be overlooked. This one draws on the rich archive of sculptors’ papers from the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, to illuminate stories behind several of modern London’s most radical sculpture proposals.

Some were realised, some not. The exhibition charts the creative process, political debates and critical responses. These ranged from measured and considered to hostile or near-vitriolic. The one that roused the greatest passions over many years was Jacob Epstein’s series of eight-foot-high nude statues, symbolising the ages of man, commissioned for Charles Holden’s British Medical Association (BMA) building in the Strand. This was Epstein’s first major commission. Formerly, as he writes in his autobiography Let There Be Sculpture, ‘I had been like a hound on the leash, and now I was suddenly set free, and I never counted the cost. I worked with ardour, feverishly, and within the space of fourteen months the eighteen over-life-size figures were finished.’ Rare photographs of them feature in the Whitechapel display.

When the commission was first given, a representative of the BMAsuggested a selection of their historically famous men. However, Epstein opted for his nude figures, because ‘surgeons with side-whiskers, no matter how eminent, could hardly have served my purpose as models.’ Sculpting proceeded quietly, Epstein records, ‘until after the scaffolding was removed from the first four figures, then a storm of vituperation burst out suddenly in The Evening Standard and St. James’s Gazette that was totally unexpected and unprecedented in its fury’ on grounds of indecency. The newspaper continued to wage its war of censure, whilst admitting that ‘many letters’, unpublished, had been received in defence of the sculptures. Those declaring themselves in support of Epstein included C J Holmes, Slade Professor of Fine Arts; the artists and collectors Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon; poet Laurence Binyon; and The Times newspaper. Eventually, the BMA decided that work should continue.

Then in 1935 the Southern Rhodesian government took over the building, requested the statues’ removal as undesirable and battle lines were drawn again. Once more the Philistines were defeated until after the coronation of King George VI. When decorations were being taken down and a piece of stonework fell, there was a further bid to remove Epstein’s figures on public safety grounds. The result was their mutilation, still visible on the front of Zimbabwe House, the hacking leaving only parts of the torsos and not a single head, Epstein having been refused the opportunity to examine them beforehand.

The case for reinstating the statues to their original condition was examined in 2004-5 by the artist Neal White through The Third Campaign, research commissioned by the Henry Moore Institute. This is documented thoroughly in the Whitechapel exhibition. It reinvigorated Epstein’s unsuccessful battles to protect the works through demonstrations, letters and photographs. As evidence of his continuing dismay, the sculptor had devoted a whole chapter of his autobiography to the saga.

Another completed project that surprisingly stirred up ire was Alfred Frank Hardiman’s imposing equestrian sculpture of the Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commissioned by Parliament in 1928. It was widely criticised when unveiled. Among objections were that the World War I commander is depicted as outdated in a mechanical age, following a conflict that had seen the rise of the armoured tank, and that Hardiman had produced a symbolic artwork rather than a realistic portrait. Other works by Hardiman, such as his sculpture at St John’s College, Cambridge; Kippen Church, Stirling; his bust of Cecil Rhodes, for Rhodes House, Oxford; and a bronze of St George, are evidence that this Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors was not the sort of artist accustomed to court controversy. The Whitechapel Gallery display includes plans for the Earl Haig statue, the Henry Moore Institute holding the Hardiman archive.

A third completed sculpture featured at Whitechapel that has perhaps understandably prompted even greater vilification from some is Laurence Bradshaw’s 1956 bust of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery, which announces the subject as ‘our most famous resident. Marx was originally buried there in his wife’s grave. Then a 1955 Marx Memorial Fund enabled completion of the squat-looking edifice, fronted by the slogan ‘Workers of all lands unite’, which was placed in a more prominent location. Although it has been a pilgrimage site for international socialist leaders, politicians and fans for over 50 years, the monument has also been the target for attacks and demonstrations, including damage from home-made bomb explosions in the 1970s.

The Whitechapel show offers fascinating insights into some remaining, all unrealised, sculpture projects. Most ambitious was the Temple of Universal Ethics, conceived by Oscar Nemon, who was born in Croatia, fled the Nazis and settled in England just before World War II. He was befriended by John Rothenstein, director of the Tate Gallery, which holds Nemon’s bust of him. Nemon established a reputation as a prominent portrait sculptor with an ability to capture likenesses, his subjects including Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother, Earl Mountbatten of Burma and notable statesmen and politicians, including Winston Churchill. The sculptor hoped that the Temple of Universal Ethics would promote better international relations.

Also ambitious was the Starhead monument, conceived by Paul Neagu in 1986. Born in Romania, Neagu settled in Britain in 1969, after which he taught, received prominent commissions and exhibited internationally. Although the original Starhead sculpture intended for Charing Cross Station was not realised, the Victoria & Albert Museum holds a 1987 drawing for it, given by the artist. According to notes by him on the back of it, a Starhead 3 sculpture was exhibited at the International Sculpture Show, Chelsea Harbour, 1993; Hathill Sculpture Foundation, Goodwood Wilfred Cass (Sussex), 1993-8; and British High Commission, Ottawa, Canada, 1998-9.

Also to be studied at the Whitechapel Gallery are papers related to Power for the People, by the recently deceased Rose Finn-Kelcey. Conceived in 1972, it proposed large flags bearing the phrase being mounted on prominent buildings along the River Thames.

Main image: Installation view, Sculptors’ Papers from the Henry Moore Institute Archive, Whitechapel Gallery, London

Sculptors’ Papers from the Henry Moore Institute Archive, Pat Matthews Gallery (Gallery 4), Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, free entry.

22 September 2014 – 22 February 2015

A series of events including screenings, talks and tours accompanies the exhibition.

Aurora Corio