Claimed, probably mistakenly, to be the 'largest free-standing sculpture in the world',(1) a rust-brown figure of a naked, anonymous man (based on a cast of the artist's own body) with aeroplane wings instead of arms. The figure and wings are strengthened with vertical ribs on the outer 'skin', giving the sculpture its generalised appearance.
'Angel of the North' was erected in one day but had a gestation period of several years. Reclamation work on the small mound on which it stands started in 1989. The following July, at the time of a huge showing of sculpture at the National Garden Festival at Dunston (said to be the largest outdoor exhibition of sculpture ever held in Britain) Gateshead Council earmarked the site for a landmark sculpture and asked Northern Arts for £45,000 to allow it to select an artist and develop a design. As Gormley later commented, 'it may have been my design but the idea for the work was Gateshead's'.(2)
In 1993 the Council's Art in Public Places Panel in consultation with the Tate Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Northern Arts and the Public Art Development Trust, invited a number of artists to submit proposals. In January 1994 Gormley was chosen on the basis of a slide of 'A Case for an Angel' (1990), one of his life-size, body-case pieces made for a gallery setting. 'We want something like that, but not that,' was how councillors put it. The fact that 'A Case for an Angel', like many of Gormley's gallery works, is a deliberately ambivalent and uncomfortable work which conveys futility rather than transcendence or regeneration was not perceived as a difficulty.
Initially, the artist was wary of becoming involved. His previous experience of public art projects had not been happy and, as he said at the time, he did not do 'roundabout art'. However, he changed his mind when he realised that certain members and officers of Gateshead Council were determined to see the project through to completion. Inevitably with so large a work there were huge engineering problems and from the first he worked closely with Ove Arup & Partners, a firm of engineering consultants that had helped him with his unrealised Leeds Brick Man project in 1987. Ove Arups' advice meant that the body was thickened up and the wings were made less like a glider's and more like a Spitfire's. It also meant a special 'weathering' steel was chosen for the sculpture, a kind of steel which after initial minor rusting is protected by surface patina. In addition, Ove Arup proposed the installation of the 20-metre deep concrete piles, concrete slabs and 52 bolts which enable the 200-tonne structure to stand upright in winds of up to 160 km/h.
Initially, the public seemed to be mostly opposed to the proposed sculpture. 4,500 local residents signed a petition condemning it and a reader's poll in a local paper suggested that popular feeling was overwhelmingly hostile. There seem to have been various anxieties: that the Angel would divert money from useful causes (not true in fact); that it would overlook people's homes (it is some distance from the nearest house); that it would fall victim to vandals and scrap merchants; that it would cause offence to Gateshead's large Jewish population on account of its alleged similarity to Albert Speer's Icarus statue at Doberitz;(3) and that it would be used for stunts by those seeking publicity. In the event only the last of these proved to be well-founded; during the run-up to Newcastle United's appearance at the 1998 FA Cup Final intrepid fans dressed the statue in a 9-metre replica of Shearer's shirt.(4) Meanwhile the sculpture's supporters, notably Councillor Sid Henderson (Chair of Gateshead Council's Art in Public Places Panel), Lord Gowrie (Chairman of the Arts of England), Virginia Bottomley (Heritage Secretary) and the artist himself did their best to defend the project.
By March 1996 the tide of opinion seemed to be turning. The artist's spectacular 'Field for the British Isles' attracted an unexpectedly large audience when it was exhibited at the former Greenesfield locomotive shed in Gateshead. Then at the local elections in May 1996 the handful of non-Labour members on Gateshead Council who had tried to use vigorous opposition to the Angel to hang on to their seats were soundly defeated. Shortly afterwards, Gateshead Council were able to secure funding for the sculpture: £584,000 from the Lottery, £150,000 from the European Regional Development Fund and £45,000 from Northern Arts, and smaller sums from business.
In May 1997 Hartelpool Fabrications Ltd were chosen to make the 'Angel' and four months later work began on preparing the foundations in preparation for the sinking of eight piles needed to stabilize the giant structure. Meanwhile, in order to enlarge the artist's model to the required size a plaster cast of the 'body skin' was scanned into a computer from which a 3D digitised model of the body could be developed to provide instructions for the fabricators' cutting machine.
By February 1998 the the Angel's body and each of the two wings were complete and on the night of Saturday 14th February 1998 these were transported from Hartlepool in trucks. The next day they were bolted and welded in place with the help of two enormous cranes, a task which provided an extraordinary spectacle for the thousands who had come to watch. Finally, on 16th February, which by chance was a particularly stormy Monday, the sculpture in situ was shown off to the world's press by the artist and Lord Gowrie.
Even before it was erected there was uncertainty about what the title 'Angel of the North' might imply. It should be noted, however, that this was actually coined by the Gateshead Council Art in Public Places Panel not the artist. For his part, Gormley always seems to have viewed the sculpture as a winged figure rather than one or other of the angels of the Christian or classical tradition. 'It is an image of a being that might be more at home in the air, brought down to the earth,' he said on one occasion: 'an image of somebody who is fatally handicapped, who cannot pass through any door and is desperately burdened.'(5)
Some, including many of the press present at the unofficial inauguration on 16th February 1998, have wanted to see the 'Angel' as a comment on the demise of the mining and shipbuilding industries which were once so essential to Tyneside's economy; to see it as a kind of phoenix rising from the ashes of the area's post-War industrial decline. However, this again must be regarded as problematic interpretation since it was Hartlepool rather than Tyneside where the sculpture was fabricated, and all traces of the old Teams Colliery on which the Angel stands were systematically obliterated prior to the sculpture's erection.
Nonetheless, such quandaries have never affected media or popular interest in the 'Angel' in any way. Two years before it was erected it was found that its digitally simulated and much reproduced image was recognised by 74% of the population of the Northern Arts region.(6) And since then even periodicals which normally take no notice of art, such as the Newcastle United supporters' magazine, have featured it.(7) In 1998 the sculpture even appeared on the Eurovision Song Contest, as one of the sights of Britain along with Warwick Castle and Loch Ness. Indeed, as time passes, it seems increasingly possible that eventually Gormley's 'Angel' will become, as its supporters always said it would, the equivalent of the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, that is to say as a structure which is regarded not as the work of a particular artist but as an integral, almost anonymous part of the landscape.
'Angel of the North' is one of the most viewed works of sculpture in Britain. It has been estimated that it is passed by up to 90,000 motorists a day. It can also be seen by pasengers on the main London-Newcastle railway line in Team Valley and by residents in western parts of Gateshead and Newcastle.
PMSA recording information