24 September 2023

An afternoon with
Jacob Epstein’s
‘levitating’ Madonna
in Cavendish Square

Sir Jacob Epstein’s majestic sculpture of the Madonna and Child hanging above the entrance to Dean’s Mews on the north side of Cavendish Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

As we were strolling around Oxford Street, Harley Street, Cavendish Square, Wigmore Street and Manchester Square last weekend, Charlotte and I found ourselves beneath Sir Jacob Epstein’s majestic sculpture of the Madonna and Child hanging above the entrance to Dean’s Mews on the north side of Cavendish Square.

Dean’s Mews is a cobbled mews behind two grand linked buildings of a former convent on Cavendish Square and Epstein’s sculpture has been suspended above the entrance for the past 70 years.

Dean’s Mews dates from the early 18th century, when the fields into the area were turned into houses. But, despite appearances, all the buildings there date from later redevelopments and post-war rebuilding.

This part of West London was developed piecemeal from the 1710s onwards for Edward Harley (1689-1741), 2nd Earl of Oxford. He owned the farmland to the north of London, and gave his name to Oxford Street and Harley Street. Other streets named after Harley properties include Wigmore Street and Wimpole Street.

Cavendish Square was laid out by the architect John Price in 1717 with housing on three sides. The whole of the north side was leased in 1720 to James Brydges (1673-1744), 1st Duke of Chandos, who had plans for a large mansion on the north side of the square. But his grand designs were cancelled after the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. The duke then decided to develop the site commercially, but only a handful of buildings were erected.

Other building plans also failed to materialise, and the north side of the square was filled in with housing when George Foster Tufnell bought the site. Dean’s Mews was developed as a classic mews, providing stabling for horses and servants of the grander houses facing Cavendish Square, now a garden square that had a circle shape.

The buildings on either side of the mews entrance, Nos 11-14 Cavendish Square, received unusually grand Palladian treatment for a pair of town houses. They were built ca 1770, with each front symmetrical, in the style of John Vardy. The houses were speculatively built by Tufnell, possibly with masonry prepared for the abortive Academy of the Society of Dilettanti intended for the site.

Nos 11-14 were leased to the Convent of the Holy Child of Jesus in 1889-1891. The sisters had previously lived in cramped accommodation near Marylebone High Street. But, needing more space for their teaching activities, they moved to Cavendish Square in 1889. There they continued the development work in the area, redeveloping some of the smaller back properties behind into a school.

The buildings were severely damaged by bombing in World War II. After the war, the convent commissioned the architect Louis Osman (1914-1996) to restore the damaged buildings and to create the linking bridge across the mews.

Osman’s design featured a bridge that linked two parts of the complex and would support a large sculpture. The nuns were keen to have a sculpture of the Madonna and Child and planned to employ a Catholic sculptor. It was Osman’s idea to include a statute of the Madonna and Child ‘levitating’ against the façade of the bridge. The statue was to be cast from roofing lead retrieved from the bombed building.

Osman, however, was determined to have a work by Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). Without consulting the nuns, Osman independently commissioned Epstein to design the cast for the statue of the Madonna and Child, and, had him produce a maquette.

When the convent rejected Epstein’s design on cost grounds, he and Osman, with help from Kenneth Clark and the Arts Council, agreed to cover the cost themselves. The convent agreed to Epstein’s design provided he would listen any suggestions they made. The convent gave its approval without knowing that the sculptor was Jewish. It appears they only found out when the Arts Council congratulated the mother superior on her ‘innovative choice of artist.’

Epstein accepted their concerns about the face of the Madonna and changed the head, from one based on Kathleen Garman, later his second wife, to one modelled on her friend Marcella Bazrtti. The convent then began working hard to raise funds for the sculpture to be cast in lead made with lead from the roof of the bombed building.

Epstein’s sculpture was formally unveiled on 14 May 1953 by Rab Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Cavendish Square Madonna and Child met with near universal praise. Its success led to a dramatic reappraisal of Epstein’s work in general and to more public commissions. That year Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff commissioned his giant Christ in Majesty, unveiled in 1957.

In 1955, Sir Basil Spence, the architect building the new Coventry Cathedral, commissioned his giant sculpture of Saint Michael’s Victory over the Devil.

When Basil Spence commissioned Jacob Epstein to work in Coventry Cathedral, some members of the rebuilding committee objected. They said some of his earlier works were controversial. And, although Coventry was at the centre of post-war reconciliation, some even objected, saying Epstein was a Jew. To this, Spence retorted: ‘So was Jesus Christ.’ His earlier sculpture Ecce Homo was given to Coventry cathedral at the wish of Lady Epstein and was dedicated on 22 March 1969.

The convent eventually moved out of Cavendish Square and was replaced by Heythrop College in 1970. Heythrop College moved to Kensington Square in 1993, and finally closed in 2019. Meanwhile, the King’s Fund moved into the site in 1995. The King’s Fund is a charitable foundation working for better health, especially in London.

Behind the bridge and the floating Madonna, Dean’s Mews turns down a curved slope, lined with brick arches on one side, into a large courtyard space, giving the area an unusual and hidden air so close to Oxford Street. The arch and Epstein’s sculpture are Grade II listed.

The architect Louis Osman (1914-1996) designed the linking bridge across Dean’s Mews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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