It seems that every week I make a new discovery about the amazing architect Charles Holden. And now a personal connection. Of sorts. In 1966 when I were but a lad, our whole family got stranded in England when the charter company with which we came over on our holiday went bust. My parents were by no means wealthy. We spent endless hours in Rhodesia House in the Strand, hoping that Ian Smith’s government would assist us rebels sort out a passage home. Some decades later, I found myself demonstrating against Robert Mugabe’s regime outside the same building.
I now discover that what is now the Zimbabwe Embassy was built in 1907-8 for the British Medical Association and designed by none other than our old friend Charles Holden, who at the time would have been in his early-30s. It is not commonly listed as one of his notable projects. My only knowledge hitherto of the building was that it was embellished with naked figures by Jacob Epstein and that these had been mutilated by persons unknown in the 1930s. Some say that a piece of one of the statues fell off and struck a pedestrian and that the protruding parts of all the statues were consequently hacked back on health and safety grounds. Others assert that the H&S concern was a bogus excuse to mutilate the pieces for puritanical reasons, laying the blame firmly on the Rhodesians. You can find copious linkage on all of this here.
What is interesting is that this was by no means Holden and Epstein’s only collaboration, although perhaps it was the first. The sculptor was commissioned to produce two statues – Night and Day – for Holden’s 55 Broadway in mid 1930s. Once again they proved controversial on the grounds of overt sexuality. And now, examining the BMA building brouhaha, one must feel that in these matters Epstein deliberately and provocatively challenged contemporary mores and that Holden, to some extent, must have approved, albeit passively.