Sculptures on the Strand

How often, when we walk down a street do we look up and appraise the architecture? There are people fixed to their phones or others in too much of a hurry to notice something significant. On a recent visit to London I looked up and noticed for the first time some interesting medical statues with a history.

Back in 1908 the building on the Strand which is now Zimbabwe House was the headquarters of the British Medical Association. The building was designed by the architect Charles Holden who created 18 niches to hold statues.And instead of getting the standard sulpture of bearded male medical experts looking out onto the Strand, the BMA went for something very avant garde.

The sculptor Jacob Epstein age 27 was commissioned to create the statues which would fill the spaces on the second floor of the building. The BMA asked him to create something aspirational and he definitely did that. In fact he created some remarkable statues that were ahead of their time but a bit too much for Edwardian Britain.

Joseph Epstein’s statues were based on the seven ages of man. He created beautiful and accurate life size nude sculptures of men and women depicting the stages in life. The BMA considered them appropriate for the building but Edwardian society did not and a scandal ensued. Father Bernard Vaughan of the National Vigilance Society was one of the main protestors. His appeal labelled them as “vice and immorality.” By having these “scandalous” sculptures in Central London and protesting about them, the inevitable happened. More people came to look at them to safisfy their curiosity. And some people felt it was not the indecency that was the issue. They felt they were ugly. Epstein had sculpted aging- and not just nubile people. Was that a reference to old people needing to be invisible?

The statues were allowed to remain but when the building changed hands the owner was not an art fan and so pieces were chiselled off the art. Add to that the pollution and acid rain in London and the statues suffered significant damage. Epstein was not given an opportunity to rescue his work.

Today the statues still adorn the building on the Strand. They are remarkable for their style and the uniqueness of the architecture. And you do have to pay attention and leave your phone for a minute to appreciate their beauty.

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