Tuesday, 15 June 2010
11-14 Cavendish Square W1
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?