In a secluded corner of Hyde Park sits a striking monument to the novelist, naturalist and ornithologist WH Hudson.
The sense of rustic diversion and tranquillity of the bird sanctuary that surrounds the memorial may today seem apt, but when it was first unveiled in 1925 Hudson's memorial caused great controversy.
The man chosen to carve the monument to Hudson - shortly after his death in 1922 - was Jacob Epstein. It was a bold choice to say the least, as the former Vorticist's forays into public sculpture had already ruffled a few feathers within the art establishment.
As was his custom, Epstein threw himself into the task. Drawing inspiration from Hudson’s most famous novel, a tale of a bird girl in the jungles of Guyana called Green Mansions (1904), he sketched numerous designs in a 56-page book, which forms the focus of this fascinating exhibition.
Warming to the theme of the story, in which a traveller falls in love with the forest-dwelling girl called Rima, Epstein fused elements of African, Asian and Polynesian art to create a sexually charged, avant garde vision of the fictional heroine.
This exhibition is, then, a valuable opportunity to explore Epstein’s creative imagination. But the sketches, which are on loan from the Henry Moore institute in Leeds, also provide a starting point for an assessment of the extreme controversy that surrounded his work.
© Collection of Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery).
According to Epstein himself the finished relief panel drew “gasps of horror” in May 1925 when the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin drew back the curtain. To the assembled throng the sculpture seemed like an awkwardly carved figure of a distorted and explicitly nude girl surrounded by grotesque birds.
A media campaign followed that saw the Morning Post describe Rima – or "the Hyde Park Atrocity" as it was quickly dubbed – as “Mr Epstein’s nightmare in stone”, and the sculptor as “the most famous example of a great sculptor who has sold his soul to the devil”. Punch weighed in by suggesting the controversy presented “the need of a sanctuary for sculptors in some secluded spot”.
There was even an incident in which the sculpture was daubed in green paint.
For Epstein it was a baffling reaction. Having poured his heart and soul into the project, he was troubled by the furore visited upon the monument and on several occasions visited Hyde Park to try and figure out what all the fuss was about.
Now 21st century eyes can do the same and also acquaint themselves with the Gallery’s important Garman Ryan Collection, including pieces by Epstein, donated to the people of Walsall by Lady Epstein in 1972.
It may also send a few people towards a quiet corner of Hyde Park, where one of the most controversial sculptures of the twentieth century now sits peacefully among the birdsong.