The Largest Scuplture in Britain
“People are always asking why an angel? The only response I can give is that no-one has ever seen one and we need to keep imagining them. The angel has three functions - firstly a historic one to remind us that below this site coal miners worked in the dark for two hundred years, secondly to grasp hold of the future expressing our transition from the industrial to the information age, and lastly to be a focus for our hopes and fears.” - Antony Gormley, sculptor
The Angel stands at the south border of Gateshead Borough in the North-East of Britain. It is intended to welcome visitors and returning Geordies, such as myself, to our part of the world. In recent years, like Liverpool and Bradford, the town has set its sights on becoming City of Culture 2008, which may help to bring some money into the area now that all the heavy industry has been so efficiently killed off.
When it was first postioned on site on Sunday 15th, February 1998, local people tended not to like it and made their views known. It wasn't as if they were split down the middle, it was more like one in twenty might say they thought it was okay. As an illustration of this, it became known as "Kevin" by many, due to the fact that it faces south, and so like Kevin Keegan was seen as "having turned its back on the North". However, within a year or two the local populace grew rather attached to it. What can I say? Beneath our dour, flinty exterior we're just a bunch of sentimental softies really.
Although visible over much of the Team Valley, its true size only begins to impress when you approach it more closely. It suddenly looms far above you, its long shadows cool even on the hottest days. Angel means "messenger" from the Greek "angelos" - one thing is for sure, when you see the Angel in the flesh, you will feel its message. What you take away from the experience depends on the eyes you use to view the world.
“It is big, bold and beautiful. My guts were gouged about and stirred with inspiration” - Lucinda Lambton.
“The statue’s a monumental clanger” - The Sun
How to build your own Angel
The Angel was assembled from a number of large chunks which were transported on the A1 motorway before being constructed on site. It stands some 65 feet (20 metres) tall. The wings measure 175 feet (54 metres) across, almost as big as a jumbo jet. It weighs 200 tonnes and the foundations which support its mass extend an impressive 20 metres into the ground. There are 52 bolts securing the foundation, each of which is 3 metres in length.
Although the Angel appears to stand on an extremely small pedestal, there is some clever engineering design at work below ground level. In order to support such a large structure and cope with problems like the stresses caused by high winds and storms, plus ground which was previously riddled with old mine workings, there was a lot of effort expended behind the scenes which most visitors might never otherwise know or notice. First, the mine workings all had to be filled in using grout, then eight large holes were drilled, each 0.75 metres in diameter. Steel reinforcement rods were lowered into these, and 150 tonnes of concrete were poured around them to securely anchor the Angel to the solid rock, lying some 20 metres below the surface.
Once these piles were established, a concrete slab one and a half metres thick, and thirteen by eight metres "square" was laid on top of them. Onto this solid foundation, a plinth 5.3 metres high was built, pierced by 52 bolts which are cast into it. Each of the bolts themselves are three metres long. This forms the point onto which the Angel itself is attached to the base.
I've heard that the shape of the body itself was modelled on Gormley's own form, but to be honest I think the figures were tweaked a little later, as to my eyes the Angel appears quite androgenous
, certainly not overwhelmingly male. As regards its texture, the Angel has an external skeleton
cut from 50mm thick steel with the skin in 6 mm sheet steel
bent and welded to form the body shape. There is an unseen internal skeleton also, comprised of criss-crossed girders
, needed to strengthen the body so the wings don't tear it apart.
It now numbers amongst the most-viewed pieces of art in the world. The Angel is seen by more than one person every second, 90,000 every day or 33 million every year. I like to think of it as our equivalent to the Statue of Liberty. As far as is known it is the world's largest angel sculpture.
All in all it was no small engineering feat, and stands as a testimony to all the people who designed and worked on it. I'm not normally a fan of things "arty", but I have to say it has become an icon for the North-East. Some people criticised the fact that it cost £800,000, but given that the money was soley earmarked for the arts, I'd rather have this than forty £20,000 prententious piles of bricks or other twaddle... One sad thing is that the local council don't light it at night, as they believe drivers might crash from the distraction! I think it's more likely we simply can't afford the electricity bill...
Wandering around the feet of giants
Whenever I visit my old home I take the opportunity each time to visit the Angel. There always seems to be at least a few people there, no matter the weather, or time of day. I always take a few pictures so I can show the people back in Nottingham. It's become something of a ritual over the years.
The wings themselves are usually the part that draws the most attention. They don't resemble those of a bird in the least, and there is nothing in them to indicate the delicacy of a feather. They are more like the wings of a plane, criss-crossed with strengthening slats, longer than you would think for graceful proportions and yet more functional in appearance. I suspect this is to indicate the industrial origins of the North-East. It works rather well. There was some discussion during the design of the Angel on whether such long, weighty wings would make the Angel top-heavy and unstable.
One idea was kicked around about lowering the wings to the hips of the body, but I think most people would agree it would look ridiculous like that. Thankfully, they went back to the drawing board, strengthened the body and managed to achieve the original design concept.
It's been said that a picture is worth a thousand words and I've tried to convey an idea of what it's like to visit the Angel, and some background on its creation, but for those of you who have never heard of it and want see it, then a quick visit to the websites in the "Sources" section at the end of this page should give you some idea of what it actually looks like. In case you're wondering why it appear to be rusting, and worry about it falling to pieces, the "aged" effect is intended, the Angel being made from weathering steel.
The Angel is expected to stand for about 100 years. Who knows what sort of world it will watch over in the course of the next century. Will the people living then still be able to hear its message? I'm optimisitic for once. The Angel is one of the images which has always has the capacity to touch us. Like it or loathe it, it will not be ignored!
Last updated : 28th January, 2003