Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North Sculpture Turns Twenty




Since spreading its wings in February 1998, Antony Gormley’s ‘The Angel of the North’ has become one of the most talked about and recognisable pieces of public art in the UK.  It has won many accolades and awards along the way. The Angel welcomes visitors to Gateshead and is seen by one person every second – that’s 90,000 every day or 33 million every year. It officially turns 20 in June this year. 

“I wanted to make an object that would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north-east” – AG

This year the Angel of the North reaches the grand old age of twenty. To mark this milestone, Gateshead is organising a number of events and local schools are getting involved creating their own Angel activities and celebrations.

Gormley had initially been, by his own admission, “quite snooty” about the project. When Gateshead Council first invited him to submit his ideas he refused, telling council officers he did not make “motorway art”. It was a picture the council sent him of the mound – next to the road and covering 300 years of mineworkings – that piqued his interest and persuaded him to visit.

The work is made of corten steel, weighs 200 tonnes and has 500 tonnes of concrete foundations. The mound near the A1 motorway which was the designated site of the sculpture was made after the closure of the Lower Tyne Colliery, out of the destroyed remains of the pithead baths. It is a tumulus marking the end of the era of coal mining in Britain.

Antony Gormley asks, Is it possible to make a work with purpose in a time that demands doubt? I wanted to make an object that would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north-east, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.

Gormley explains,The Angel resists our post-industrial amnesia and bears witness to the hundreds and thousands of colliery workers who had spent the last three hundred years mining coal beneath the surface. The scale of the sculpture was essential given its site in a valley that is a mile and a half a mile wide, and with an audience that was travelling past on the motorway at an average of 60 miles an hour.

Gormley used a plaster cast of his own body as the basis for the Angel of the North. The exo-skeleton seemed the best solution for transforming a self-supporting fibreglass and lead structure into an object 10 times life-size, or 20 m high. It uses the Tyneside engineering vernacular of ships and the Tyne Bridge, to produce a strong structure that would withstand the prevailing south-easterly winds. This has the added advantage of giving the form a strong surface articulation that deals equally well with volume and light.

We made a series of models to work out how this was going to work: the challenge was to transfer a rib structure that radiates from a central axis in the bodyform onto the wings, and the solution was to have an increasing distance between the ribs, suggesting a broadcasting of energy. The work stands, without a spolight or a plinth, day and night, in wind, rain and shine and has many friends. It is a huge inspiration to me that the Angel is rarely alone in daylight hours, and as with much of my work, it is given a great deal through the presence of those that visit it.

The project almost didn’t happen as the cost of £800,000 was deemed too steep, although the money was earmarked as an art spend that didn’t cut into the health service, education or other building projects. The other shortlisted artist was Anthony Caro who proposed a large girder structure which reflected the iconic local bridges. The now defunct Gateshead Post compared Gormley’s work with Albert Speer’s Icarus sculpture, commissioned in the 1930s by the Nazis. The sculpture has held up well and remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area.

 Angel of the North Fun facts:

• It is believed to be the largest angel sculpture in the world

• It is one of the most viewed pieces of art in the world – seen by more than one person every second, 90,000 every day or 33 million every year

• It is one of the most famous artworks in the region – almost two thirds of people in the North East had already heard of the Angel of the North before it was built

• Its 54 metre (175 foot) wingspan is bigger than a Boeing 757 or 767 jet and almost the same as a Jumbo jet

• It is 20 metres (65 feet) high – the height of a five storey building or four double decker buses

• It weighs 200 tonnes – the body 100 tonnes and the wings 50 tonnes each

• There is enough steel in it to make 16 double decker buses or four Chieftain tanks

• It will last for more than 100 years

• It will withstand winds of more than 100 miles per hour

• Below the sculpture, massive concrete piles 20 metres deep will anchor it to the solid rock beneath

• It is made of weather resistant Cor-ten steel, containing a small amount of copper, which forms a patina on the surface that mellows with age

• Huge sections of the Angel – up to six metres wide and 25 metres long – were transported to the site by lorry with a police escort

• The total cost of The Angel of the North was £800,000

• There is unique species of daffodil named the Angel of the North due to its orange, rusty hue and lofty height. The Angel of the North daffodil has been verified and registered with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)

The Angel of the North is located close to the A1 and is easy to reach by both public transport and car.

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