Jane Peyton in her book Looking up in London draws the reader’s attention to the often unobserved hidden architectural features above eye-level. I discovered a good example of this recently in Marylebone during a lunchtime walk along Wigmore Street. On the north side of Cavendish Square is Dean’s Mews, which contains a striking statue of the Madonna and Child suspended upon an arch.
Intrigued by this imposing but unlabeled sculpture I did a quick internet search and discovered that the sculptor was Jacob Epstein. This is not the only public piece of sculpture by him within the borough. He was also commissioned in 1908 for the British Medical Association (now Zimbabwe House) building façade 18 large nude sculptures. The architect for this building was Charles Holden who also designed the 1929 London Underground headquarters at 55 Broadway, Holden commissioned Epstein again to decorate this façade with the nude sculptures Day and Night above the entrance. These also stirred up controversy with protestors objecting to the sculpture on moral grounds.
Now owned by The Kings Fund, the Dean’s Mews buildings were formally occupied by the Convent of the Holy Child of Jesus. The sisters had previously occupied cramped accommodation near Marylebone High Street but, needing more space for their teaching activities, they moved here in 1889.
Bombed in the Second World War, the convent commissioned the architect Louis Osman to restore the damaged buildings and also to create the linking bridge across the mews. It was his idea to include a statute of the Madonna and Child “levitating” against the bridge’s façade; the statue to be cast from roofing lead acquired from the bombed building. Osman independently commissioned Jacob Epstein to design the cast for the statue which caused a further artistic controversy.
This was due to people questioning whether it was appropriate for a Jew (Epstein) to create a Christian image and there were also requested alterations to the statue’s faces. The statue was formally unveiled on 14 May 1953. The Times reported this ceremony – you can read a facsimile in The Times Digital Archive (log in with your library card number). It’s also worth checking out other 24/7 resources for artistic and biographical information on Jacob Epstein, such as the Art & Design section and The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Please note that some of the listed art resources can only be accessed in-house at Westminster Reference Library. You will also need to visit the library if you’d like to consult Richard Cork’s well known biography of the artist.
Apart from the sculpture discussed above, other examples of Epstein’s work can be found in the borough at Tate Britain. The gallery includes his famous sculpture “Torso in Metal” [Rock Drill] – seen reproduced on the cover of Richard Cork’s biography, together with several other displayed paintings and drawings.
Jacob Epstein is of course not the only sculptor to create public works of art in London. Rupert Hill’s book Walking London’s Statues and Monuments is one of several guide books for the curious explorer of London’s treasures.