429 Strand, London

429 Strand, London

It’s certainly not unusual for buildings to be deemed a danger to public safety. Dodgy slates, subsiding walls or loose panes of glass often result in blocked pavements, stripy warning tape and cheek sucking workmen looking skywards. In the history of remedial construction however there must be precious few examples of an erection being declared unsafe due to the threat of falling penises. Yet in 1930’s London, number 429 Strand, a building dogged by controversy ever since its completion, was irrevocably altered, some would say vandalised, in the name of health and safety.

A stroll along the Strand today would most likely involve a head down battle against the tide of humanity. The street still contains some classic features, including Charing Cross Station and the Savoy hotel, but as a vehicle choked city thoroughfare, it’s not the best place in the capital to admire the view. In 1908 the scene would have been very different. Locals, spared the high doses of CO2, gathered in large crowds at what is now number 429, to view the recently completed headquarters of the British Medical Foundation. The focus of their attention was the series eighteen seven foot high nude sculptures entitled the Ages of Man which adorned the outside of the building. The nakedness of the figures enraged conservative writers of the time and the Evening Standard spearheaded a campaign against art works they considered to be morally retrograde. Father Bernhard Vaughn, a member of the National Vigilance Society raged in the paper that:

“As a Christian in a Christian City, I claim the right to say that I object most emphatically to such indecent statuary being thrust upon my view.”

While the good Father was clearly opposed to any sort of thrusting filth, the vehemence of the morally indignant he represented soon generated a wider public interest. So when the Evening Standard suggested that the statues were the sort that “…no careful father would wish his daughter, or no discriminating young man, his fiancée, to see”, Londoners flocked to the Strand eager to consume their quota of outrage.

The scandal epitomised the rapidly changing world of the early twentieth century. The prudishness of the Victorian age was slowly succumbing to more avant-garde forms of expression and artists such as Jacob Epstein, the creator of the Ages of Man, were beginning to challenge societal taboos in very public ways. Born into to a Jewish family of Polish refugees on the lower East Side of New York, Epstein was a pioneer of modern sculpture. His bohemian style rejected ornate art in favour of harsh realism and his work often focused on issues of sexuality. Inevitably this free spirited approach jarred with conservative views of decency and Epstein’s work was often branded as obscene. The controversies which followed perpetually dogged his career, but although hindered by the criticism, Epstein always confronted his detractors head on.

Fortunately in 1908 the campaign to remove the offending sculptures was matched by the appearance of a group of equally vocal supporters. Leading artists heaped praise on Epstein’s innovative work and the British Medical Association decided to stand by their artist. In 1923 the building was taken over by the Rhodesian government as their High Commission. By the 1930s the new owners appeared very keen to remove the sculptures which they claimed were deteriorating into a dangerous condition. Some have suggested that actually the straight-laced Rhodesians objected to the figures on the same grounds as the Edwardian moralists had a few decades previously. It may also have been that Epstein’s Jewish background counted against the art works. Whatever the reason it seems unlikely that the sculptures could not have been saved or repaired. As it was the supposed danger of flying phalluses won out and the offending protuberances were brutally hacked away forever.

Today the shattered remains of Epstein’s work are still visible on the outside of what is now Zimbabwe House. For a modern audience, the intact statues would have been unlikely to raise even the merest hint of an eyebrow. But that they once prompted a public scandal is evidence of how art is able to excite and enrage - health and safety permitting.

How to get there

429 Strand is located a short walk from Charing Cross railway station in central London.

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