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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (119) 24 September 2023

Michaelhouse café and Saint Michael’s Church on Trinity Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and today is the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVI). Yom Kippur, the solemn day of repetance and fasting in the Jewish calendar, begins at sunset this evening (24 September 2023), when the evening service begins with Kol Nidre, and it ends at nightfall tomorrow evening (25 September).

I was in London yesterday for the annual reunion and celebration day of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). Later this morning, I hope to be at the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton. But, before the day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

Later this week, the Church celebrates Saint Michael and All Angels (29 September). So my reflections each morning this week and next are taking this format:

1, A reflection on a church named after Saint Michael or his depiction in Church Art;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Trinitarian truths expressed in a stained-glass window in Michaelhouse, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Michael’s Church (Michaelhouse), Cambridge:

Michaelhouse is an interesting café located in Saint Michael’s Church in Trinity Street in the oldest part of Cambridge. It is just a few steps from Sidney Sussex College, around the corner at the end of Green Street. It stands opposite Gonville and Caius College and is close to Great Saint Mary’s Church, Trinity College and King’s College Chapel.

The café is set within the 14th century church of Saint Michael’s, a parish and collegiate church. But, while it is an award-winning café and restaurant, Michaelhouse remains a church – you could say it offers refreshment for both body and soul. Church services are held in the chancel several days a week, and the mediaeval Hervey de Stanton Chapel offers a peaceful space that is also a setting at times for concerts.

Michaelhouse recalls the name of one of the earliest Cambridge colleges, which flourished from 1324 until 1546, when it was merged with King’s Hall to form Trinity College. Michaelhouse was the second residential college in Cambridge, following Peterhouse (1284) – although King’s Hall was established in 1317, it did not acquire premises until it was re-founded by King Edward III in 1336.

Michaelhouse was founded by Hervey de Stanton, Edward II’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Chief Justice, who had acquired the advowson (or right of presentation) to the parish of Saint Michael along with property on the High Street.

In May 1324, Edward II granted a royal charter to the new college for scholars in Holy Orders. Three months later, Bishop John Hotham of Ely granted his own charter. De Stanton suggested to the bishop that the master and fellows, who were all priests, could provide daily worship for the parish as they were using the church as their chapel. And so, the first Master of Michaelhouse, Walter de Buxton, was also Vicar of Saint Michael’s.

When de Stanton died on All Souls’ Day 1325, he was buried in the unfinished chancel.

The college continued to acquire more properties, including property between Saint Michael’s Lane (today’s Trinity Lane) and the river, an area now occupied by the south-west corner of the Great Court of Trinity College, New Court, Scholars’ Lawn and the Wren Library, property around Garret Hostel Lane leading down to the river, and a navigable stream.

Nothing much remains of the original Michaelhouse buildings, apart from Saint Michael’s Church. Until a chapel was completed at Gonville Hall in 1396, both Michaelhouse and Gonville shared the use of the two aisles, with Gonville using the north aisle and Michaelhouse the south.

John Fisher, who was Master of Michaelhouse in 1497-1501, was Chancellor of Cambridge University, and was instrumental in the foundation of Saint John’s College and Christ’s College. As Bishop of Rochester, Fisher took a conservative stance on the royal supremacy and the reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and was executed in 1535.

By the time of the dissolution of the monastic houses, Michaelhouse had an income greater than that of Westminster Abbey. The college was dissolved in 1546 and was merged with King’s Hall to form Trinity College, the largest and wealthiest college in Cambridge to this day.

Until the completion of Trinity College Chapel in 1565, Trinity College used Saint Michael’s as its chapel. As the new chapel was being built, 36 scholars’ stalls from the former chapel of King’s Hall, some with carved misericords, were moved to Saint Michael’s, where they remain to this day.

Trinity College continued to hold the patronage of the living of Saint Michael’s and from the 16th to the 18th centuries, Trinity College fellows were chaplains of Saint Michael’s.

After a fire in 1849, the church was rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott and his son, George Gilbert Scott junior. Their work included a new stone porch, a new East Window, and a three-tiered new reredos.

The artists who worked with Scott included FR Leach, who also worked with GF Bodley on the ceiling and frescoes of All Saints’ Church on Jesus Lane, the ceiling of Jesus College Chapel, the dining hall ceiling at Queens’ College, and at Saint Botolph’s Church on Trumpington Street. Leach painted the chancel ceiling and arches in Saint Michael’s to designs by Scott as a thank-offering, without accepting any payment. Parts of the north aisle had been painted previously to designs by Holman Hunt.

In time, the parish was too small to be sustainable, and it was finally united with Great Saint Mary’s Church, the university church, in 1908.

By the early 1990s, the church buildings were increasingly in need of significant repair, and an ambitious fundraising and building project began. The Michaelhouse Centre opened in 2002, and is a registered charity. Michaelhouse is now a key cultural and spiritual location in Cambridge, a unique community resource in the heart of the city, and a place of beauty and tranquillity.

Inside Michaelhouse café and Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 20: 1-16 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Trinity Street, Cambridge, with Michaelhouse café and Saint Michael’s Church on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Flinging open the doors.’ This theme is introduced today by the Revd Anthony Gyu-Yong Shim, Diocese of Daejeon, Korea.

After re-opening the doors of Saint Mark’s Church, Yesan, in 2019, Anthony reflects on how he reached out to the local community:

It was daunting when I first took up my role because when I started the services again there were no parishioners, only my family. I often ask myself ‘What can a church do for the local community, not just for the church?’

I set up a reading group at the church. Some of the people who came had left the church in the past, some were Anglicans and some were not. Thankfully they all attended the first worship service. We also have a programme called ‘Shinmyeong Theatre’, where people come once a month to see a movie and talk about it. When the government decided that their ‘Urban Regeneration New Deal Project’ would take place in our area I was appointed a ‘village coordinator’ and have been working with the residents council on the project.

Love for God and love for our neighbours are the main pillars of the Bible. Christianity has a spirituality of hospitality for strangers. I want Saint Mark’s to be a place that anyone can easily visit. To come, sit and rest; to seek a religious question or answer, or to have a talk over a cup of coffee. Saint Mark’s is a small church, but I hope it is a significant neighbour in the community. The church needs to shine humble confidence in Jesus.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (24 September 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

O God make us faithful in the mission of your church.
Help us seek justice and work for healing.
Renew us with your Holy Spirit to build your kingdom on earth as in heaven.

The Collect:

O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers
of your people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
you have taught us through your Son
that love is the fulfilling of the law:
grant that we may love you with our whole heart
and our neighbours as ourselves;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Hervey de Stanton Chapel in Saint Michael’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Archbishop John Colton, and an angel with the coat-of-arms of Armagh, on the side of Saint Michael’s Court in Trinity Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)