It’s Baaaack! The Winston Churchill Bust Furore, Round 3

It’s Baaaack! The Winston Churchill Bust Furore, Round 3

N.B. The Epstein sto­ry is expand­ed in The Amer­i­can Spec­ta­tor, 30 Jan­u­ary. 

It seems that every four or eight years we must have a Great Media Hoe­down over a bust of Win­ston Churchill by Jacob Epstein arriv­ing at, or depart­ing, the White House. The revolv­ing door bust belongs to the British Embassy. It has twice resided on loan in the Oval Office. Ipso fac­to, it has twice returned to the Embassy. Per­haps it should hang on a Zip line between the two build­ings to con­ve­nience the spir­it of the moment.

When­ev­er the Epstein makes a trip back or forth, the media explodes in spec­u­la­tion. Does this sig­ni­fy the end (renew­al) of the Anglo-Amer­i­can Spe­cial Rela­tion­ship? Is it a ges­ture of dis­dain (admi­ra­tion) by the new pres­i­dent? Does this mean there won’t (will) be a trade deal between Amer­i­ca and the post-Brex­it Unit­ed Kingdom?

There is much igno­rance and con­fu­sion over this sub­ject. So here is the lat­est revi­sion of a sto­ry that began in 2009, was amend­ed in 2017, and needs amend­ing again.

It is nec­es­sary to explain that there is more than one Epstein bust. The renowned sculp­tor cast eight or ten from his orig­i­nal mold. Nat­u­ral­ly, they are high­ly prized. One is at Wind­sor Cas­tle. A few are in pri­vate hands. I sold one myself to a col­lec­tor in Con­necti­cut when I was a Churchill bookseller.

(Epstein him­self lived oppo­site the Churchills in Hyde Park Gate, Lon­don. Put­ter­ing in his gar­den, he took delight in answer­ing vis­i­tors’ ques­tions about his neighbo(u)rs: “Peo­ple thought I was the gardener.”)

Epstein #1: the bust that never left

Epstein #1 (with brass plaque) was briefly moved in Jan­u­ary 2017 from out­side the Treaty Room to the Oval Office. Stand­ing: Jared Kush­n­er, V.P. Mike Pence. (White House photo)

Unknown to most, there has been a Jacob Epstein bust of Sir Win­ston in the Exec­u­tive Man­sion since 1965. “Epstein #1,” dis­tin­guished by a brass plaque, is nor­mal­ly dis­played out­side the Treaty Room near the fam­i­ly quar­ters. (Pho­to above.)

In 2017 Pres­i­dent Trump asked the Embassy to loan back an iden­ti­cal bust—let’s call it “Epstein #2″—which had adorned the Oval Office dur­ing the George W. Bush Admin­is­tra­tion (2001-09). This one is the prop­er­ty of the British gov­ern­ment. Pend­ing its arrival, Trump moved Epstein #1 down­stairs from its pre­vi­ous posi­tion in the fam­i­ly quar­ters. When Epstein #2 arrived from the Embassy, Epstein #1 went back upstairs.

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma had to pass Epstein #1 every time he entered the Treaty Room on his way to watch a bas­ket­ball game. So it can hard­ly be assert­ed that he was deter­mined to rid the house of Churchill images.  Indeed, he made a point of show­ing it to Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron on his vis­it to the White House. In describ­ing this bust and his dai­ly encoun­ters with it, Oba­ma said of Sir Win­ston, “I love the guy.”

Epstein #2: the revolving door bust

Epstein #2 (with white-let­ter black plaque) was returned to the Oval Office in 2017, in time for a vis­it by Prime Min­is­ter May. Note: by then its place seems to have been to the right of the fire­place. (White House photo)

After 9/11, the British Embassy loaned Pres­i­dent Bush Epstein #2 as a ges­ture of sol­i­dar­i­ty. It is, of course, iden­ti­cal to the oth­er Epstein busts. The only dif­fer­ence is that the plinth bears a white-on-black plaque, not a brass plaque like Epstein #1.

In 2009 before Mr. Oba­ma arrived, Epstein #2 was returned to the Embassy. It was not returned specif­i­cal­ly by Oba­ma, although he received blame for the act. There are sto­ries that he reject­ed the image or “put it into moth­balls” out of hatred toward the for­mer prime min­is­ter, British colo­nial­ism, or some­thing. This is incor­rect. If he felt that way. he would not have kept Epstein #1 on promi­nent dis­play upstairs.

James Bar­bour, British Embassy press sec­re­tary, explained: Epstein #2 was “lent to the George W. Bush Admin­is­tra­tion from the UK’s gov­ern­ment art col­lec­tion, for the dura­tion of the pres­i­den­cy.” White House cura­tor William All­man said in 2010 that the deci­sion to return Epstein #2 had been made before Mr. Oba­ma even arrived. “It was already sched­uled to go back.”

It is true that the incom­ing Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion was offered Epstein #2 on extend­ed loan out of cour­tesy, but want­ed to make room for a bust of Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. They might have act­ed know­ing the White House had anoth­er Epstein already. Trump did not remove the King bust when he brought back Epstein #2. “I would nev­er do that,” he said, “because I have great respect for Dr. Mar­tin Luther King.”

Teapot tempest

I once sold this Epstein to a client in Con­necti­cut. It was so heavy that it was more eco­nom­i­cal to dri­ve it there than to con­sign it to Fedex. (Pho­to: Don Carmichael)

I have said a few rude things about Mr. Oba­ma, but not over Epstein #2. I greet­ed its return (to the British Embassy) with facts, then with reduc­tio ad absur­dum. The Oba­ma White House, I wrote, had more Churchilliana than the Bush White House, since Epstein #2 was replaced with Win­ston S. Churchill, Mar­tin Gilbert’s majes­tic biog­ra­phy, which weighs almost as much and takes up more space. The jour­nal­ist Jake Tap­per, blast­ed out the truth back in 2012. Tap­per wrote: “How did I fig­ure out what was real­ly going on? I nev­er gave in, nev­er, nev­er, nev­er, nev­er. In noth­ing great or small, large or pet­ty.” As pet­ti­ness goes, this sub­ject has had quite a ration.

Some modest proposals…

Now that Epstein #2 has again left Oval Office and returned to the Embassy, anoth­er furore has arisen over pre­dictable lines. On which, a few observations:

1) Togeth­er with the Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy, pre­sent­ed to Pres­i­dent Oba­ma by Prime Min­is­ter Gor­don Brown, the White House today is brim­ming with Churchilliana. Churchill admir­ers must regard this as a fine thing.

2) As to its alleged sym­bol­ism for the Anglo-Amer­i­can Spe­cial Rela­tion­ship, I rec­om­mend a rather broad­er per­spec­tive offered by the Amer­i­can Embassy in Lon­don. Click here and scroll to the video.

3) While all Churchillians were glad to see his bust in the Oval Office, every pres­i­dent has the right to the totems of his choice. A cor­re­spon­dent with whom I rarely agree about any­thing hit the nail on the head when he cit­ed Supreme Court Jus­tice Robert H. Jack­son in one of the flag salute cas­es in 1943:

Strug­gles to coerce uni­for­mi­ty of sen­ti­ment in sup­port of some end thought essen­tial to their time and coun­try have been waged by many good as well as by evil men…. If there is any fixed star in our con­sti­tu­tion­al con­stel­la­tion, it is that no offi­cial, high or pet­ty, can pre­scribe what shall be ortho­dox in pol­i­tics, nation­al­ism, reli­gion, or oth­er mat­ters of opin­ion or force cit­i­zens to con­fess by word or act their faith there­in.” (West Vir­ginia State Board of Edu­ca­tion v. Bar­nette, 319 U.S. 624.)
Now if only we can impart Jus­tice Jackson’s wis­dom to the boss­es of Apple, Google, Twit­ter and Facebook, all will be well.

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