19 August 2019

A giant sculpture by
a giant among sculptors
at Congress House

‘The Spirit of Brotherhood’ by Bernard Meadows at Congress House in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Bloomsbury is associated for many people with the literary figures, writers, poets, playwrights and artists, who lived in this part of London. But an unexpected place of cultural interest is Congress House, the headquarters of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), in Great Russell Street.

David du Roi Aberdeen won an architectural competition to design the new TUC headquarters building in 1948. Staff began moving into the new office block in 1956, and Congress House was officially opened on 27 March 1958. It was one of the earliest post-war buildings in Britain to be listed at Grade II*, in 1988.

The best-known work there is the giant pietà-style statue by Jacob Epstein in the internal courtyard of a woman holding her dead son. It was commissioned as a memorial to dead trade unionists who died in both world wars.

Less well-known but more visible is the bronze sculpture by Bernard Meadows that dominates the front of the building. ‘The Spirit of Brotherhood’ represents the spirit of trade unionism, with the strong helping the weak.

The British sculptor Bernard Meadows (1915-2005) was associated at an different stages in his career with Henry Moore, and was also part of the Geometry of Fear school, a loose-knit group of sculptors whose prominence was established at the 1952 Venice Biennale.

Bernard Meadows was born in Norwich in 1915, and educated at the City of Norwich School. After training as an accountant, he attended Norwich School of Art and in 1936 became Henry Moore's first assistant at his studio in Kent, and took in the first Surrealist exhibition in London that year.

He moved to Chalk Farm on 1937, assisting Moore in his studio at Hampstead, and he studied at the Royal College of Art and at the Courtauld Institute.

At the outbreak of World War II, Meadows registered as a conscientious objector. But when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he withdrew his objection and was called up to the Royal Air Force. He worked in air-sea rescue, spending time the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

After World War II, he returned to Moore’s studio and helped him with his marble sculpture Three Standing Figures (1947) and his bronze Family Group (1949).

He found acclaims with an elm figure exhibited in the open air sculpture exhibition at Battersea Park in 1951, alongside the Festival of Britain, which went to the Tate Gallery.

He exhibited in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale a year later, with Anthony Caro, Lynn Chadwick and Eduardo Paolozzi. Their angular styles, contrasted with the rounded work of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth gave them the name of the ‘Geometry of Fear.’ His edgy pieces often based on animals and seemingly carved from shrapnel could imply Cold War menace.

He first solo exhibition was at Gimpel Fils in 1957, with four more in the decade to 1967, and he also exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1964.

Meadows was a Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art for 20 years, from 1960 to 1980. He returned to assist Henry Moore again at Perry Green, Hertfordshire, from 1977, after Moore’s health started to fail. After Moore’s death in 1986, he became an acting director of the Henry Moore Foundation.

Bernard Meadows died in London in 2005.

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