Angel of the North: The icon that was nearly never built

Angel of the North: The icon that was nearly never built
From BBC - February 10, 2018

The Angel of the North's iconic status is taken for granted. Yet it was so nearly never made. Strong local opposition, engineering difficulties and even the doubts of its own creator, Sir Antony Gormley, threatened to scupper it several times.

When the Angel arrived in Gateshead in the middle of an unseasonably mild February night 20 years ago, it was treated like royalty.

The convoy of body and wings eased past waving crowds, illuminated by police escort headlights and streetlamps, followed by a traffic tailback cortege.

"Everybody had been told to stay away - but they did not," says Gormley.

"By midday we had 2,000 people there."

Gary Porter, who drove the 48-wheel trailer carrying the Angel's body, remembers people on "every corner, every roundabout, every turn - hundreds, thousands, everywhere".

He had already driven the 28-mile route from Hartlepool over and over, checking the sculpture would fit under bridges and around corners.

Inconvenient road signs and lampposts had been removed.

"That was not the day to get a corner wrong and hit something," he says.

The Angel's night-time arrival was "spectacular", says Sid Henderson, then chairman of Gateshead Council's libraries and arts committee.

"It would not have been nearly as exciting [during the day] would it?" he says.

But, at any point during the previous eight years, the Angel could have been halted for good.

'It has to be five double-decker buses high'

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".

While today he is globally famous, in 1990 his emerging renown was contained within the art world.

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.

Anna Pepperall, the visual arts manager in Gateshead Council's arts team, remembers "talking and talking, trying to persuade him that it was worthy of a site visit".

She believes he may have had reservations about the "huge risk" of the project, given the failure of his proposed Brick Man sculpture in Leeds, which was defeated by red tape and the same kind of opposition which later threatened the Angel.

But, once in Gateshead, he was "very excited", she says.

The prominent location - on the landscaped site of the old Teams Colliery miners' baths - appealed.

"I think the combination of the site and the view and the history was very attractive," she says.

"If you are going for a landmark sculpture you want it to be seen."

Gormley himself remembers walking up the hill with Gateshead councillors.

One, Pat Conaty, said to him "what we need Mr Gormley is one of your angels", he says.

"I did not even know that they knew that I'd made a work called A Case for An Angel," Gormley says.

"And I said, well, if you are serious about this, it has to be about five double-decker buses high."

He laughs at the memory of their stunned silence.

'It could have changed everything'

Of course, the Angel of the North might never had been built were it not for a senior councillor beginning a job as a trainee store manager at Marks & Spencer.

In 1994, the council's Art in Public Places panel was considering a shortlist of two: Antony Gormley and the significantly more well-known, and already knighted, Sir Anthony Caro, who would later co-design London's Millennium Bridge.

But, on the day of the meeting to recommended one for approval, only three of the panel's six members turned up to vote.

One opted for Gormley and one for Caro. Sid Henderson, the panel's chairman, cast the deciding vote.

Missing was Liberal Democrat opposition councillor, Jonathan Wallace, prevented from attending by his new job.

Becoming increasingly well known as a critic of the project, he might have swung the vote.

"It could have changed the debate and argument that we had afterward," he says.

Ms Pepperall had added Gormley to a long list of about 40 internationally significant artists drawn up by the council's arts team.

He was "at the forefront of a young generation of sculptors" while Caro was a "huge national figure", Ms Pepperall says.

Gormley's work largely showed the human form unusually positioned or located while Caro's pieces were abstract constructions of intertwined metal of differing thickness and shapes, often brightly coloured.

Caro sketched a design for councillors based on the Newcastle to Gateshead bridges, Mr Henderson says.

"It was very impressive and hard to say whether or not that would have been as popular, or less popular, than the Angel," he says.

Ms Pepperall believes a more abstract Caro sculpture could have worked.

It would have attracted a different sort of public and may not have provoked the same initial negativity, she thinks.

But the Angel "somehow fitted the bill".

'Nazi....but nice?'

When the Gormley design was revealed as the preferred option, it was met with a torrent of negative publicity.

The list of objections was long and varied: the Angel would cause accidents on the nearby A1, interfere with television reception, spoil views, attract lightning strikes and tempt vandals.

Some thought it was blasphemous or a waste of money. Others simply disliked the design.

As one of the Labour council's chief Angel advocates, Mr Henderson found himself regularly challenged in pubs.

The council's Liberal Democrat opposition started a campaign to stop the sculpture and raised a petition.

Many refused to believe the 800,000 it would cost to build - money ring-fenced for the arts - could not be spent on the schools or hospitals they thought more worthy.

"You could not convince people," Mr Henderson says.

"The thing is, if we did not get that money then it would just go somewhere else for the arts and not for Gateshead."

Meanwhile, headlines in the local papers shouted about wasted money and ugly art.

The now defunct Gateshead Post even ran a story comparing the Angel to a 1930s German sculpture, with the headline: "Nazi... but nice?"

The paper unfavourably highlighted similarities in the two pictures - of Albert Speer's Icarus and Gormley's earlier work, A Case for An Angel III.

The Newcastle Evening Chronicle ran dozens of critical articles.

Its former editor, Alison Hastings, says her paper did not wage a concerted campaign against the Angel but was, perhaps, "not very supportive" of it.

"It's one of those things that you look back in hindsight and think, well, you know, we got that wrong, we got that wrong to be as negative," she says.

"But I would not say that it should not have been scrutinised."

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