An artistic bent — 05 November 2013
Epstein’s door knob

News that London Underground intends to sell 55 Broadway for conversion into luxury flats for the big knobs of business has prompted me to write about this iconic Art Deco building. But I fear the narrative could read like a Carry On script.

Built above St. James’s Park Station in 1929 it was London’s first skyscraper and hailed as a masterpiece – except for one small detail which stuck out as unacceptable.

The greatest sculptors of the day worked in situ to decorate the building: Henry Moore, Eric Gill and to stand erect over the door canopy Jacob Epstein carved ‘Night’ and ‘Day’ to catch the public’s eye.

Charles Holden designed the building and had collaborated with Epstein before on the British Medical Association’s building in the Strand (now Zimbabwe House) which had caused a mighty outrage at the time, but these figures kept their full manhood’s for a time. Later in the 1930’s a gentleman pedestrian was struck on the head by a falling stone phallus from one of the statues, and the other statues then were also rendered eunuchs to prevent similar mishaps.

Holden’s client for 55 Broadway was the legendary Frank Pick (enter Kenneth Williams inserting an inappropriate rolling ‘r’ when mentioning his surname) the man who did more to create today’s Underground than any other.

When Epstein’s two figures were exposed there was a storm of reactionary fury, with newspaper leader columns advising men not to let their wives and daughters see these abominations. For ‘Night’ showed a naked muscular man sat with his legs apart and his hands in perhaps not the most appropriate position topped off with a self-satisfied smile on his face. His naked son is looking at his father but sculpted in profile allowing his penis to remain visible. Surely if he wanted a hug from Dad he would be facing away from the public? But Epstein was always a cocky character.

The protests were predictable, white paint was thrown over it, which no sooner had it been cleaned off, tar was ejaculated from a spray gun and were it not for the timely intervention of a police officer, a coating of feathers would have followed.

Frank Pick put the debate of the penis into his own hands, so to speak, and threatened to resign if its removal found favour with his superiors.

Claims that the poor boy’s willy needed overzealous circumcision because rain ran down it and formed a perfect arc of water on to any hapless lady walking below – insert inappropriate innuendo – a compromise was agreed by reducing the affronting appendage by one-and-a-half inches. Just how public sensibilities were assuaged by this length was never revealed, but as James Bond once said it’s not good going off half-cocked.

At the time the whittled willy seemed to keep the public happy but now badly weathered and discoloured with streaks of dirt and will need a brisk rub down before future buyers of 55 Broadway will be satisfied with their purchase.

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