16 February 2021

Angel of the North - UK's most impressive public sculpture

It started in the early 1980s when Gateshead decided to take art to the public because it did not have its own contemporary art gallery. The early works were so successful that in 1986 a formal public art programme was launched. This was given a tremendous boost during the 1990 Garden Festival in Gateshead with 70+ artworks on display.

Angel of the North
overlooking the A1 Motorway

Gateshead now has a legacy of 50+ major public works by leading artists and received funding from sources like the Arts Council Lottery, Northern Arts and local developers and sponsors. Art has helped reclaim derelict areas eg Gateshead Quays which transformed a former industrial area into an attractive public area enhanced with artworks.

Note that mining ceased on this Gateshead site in the late 1960s. But Gateshead Council's Art in Public Places Panel didn’t decide to earmark the site overlooking the A1 for a future landmark sculpture until 1990.

The Angel of the North is a contemporary weathering steel sculpture, designed by Antony Gormley (b1950). I didn’t know Gormley’s name because he is of the generation of young British artists who emerged recently. He has exhibited work around the world and has major public works in the USA, Europe, Japan and Australia. In 1994 he won the Turner Prize and in 1997 won an OBE for services to sculpture. He has shown in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Gallery, British Museum and Leeds Henry Moore Sculpture Gallery.

It is located in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. The artwork stands on a hill, overlooking the A1 and A167 roads and the East Coast Main Line rail route, south of the site of Team Colliery. Work in Hart­lepool began on the project in 1994, using government art money and private sponsor­sh­ip.

Gormley was selected by a panel and his design proposals progressed with engineering consultants, Ove Arup & Partners. Fabrication contractors visited Gormley's studio to see the Angel models and in May 1997, the fabrication company was chosen: Hartlepool Fabric­ations on Teesside.

A revolutionary approach to the Angel was devised by Hartlepool Fabric­ations working closely with consulting engineers Ove Arup and Gateshead Council. The original body castings of the Angel by Gorm­ley were scanned by the Geomatics Department at Newcastle University and the precise co-ordinates plotted to create an electronic 3D virtual reality.

A panoramic hilltop site was chosen where the sculpture would be clearly seen by more than 90,000 drivers a day on the A1 and by passengers on the East Coast London-Edinburgh main line. The site, the former colliery pithead synonymous with Gateshead mining history, was later re-turfed and the landscape in the surrounding area reinstated.

Completed in Feb 1998, the Angel was 20 ms tall with wings 54 ms across. Due to its exposed location, windloads on the wing boxes were transmitted along the ribs, down the body and into the foundations, to withstand winds of 160+ km/h. Thus, foundations  contain­ing 600 tonnes of concrete anchored the sculpture to rock 21 m below.

The angel was made in 3 parts, the body weighing 100 tonnes and the 2 wings weighing 50 tonnes each; then they were brought to its site by road. Working from scaffolding, workers secured each wing with 88 bolts then welded the plates together. The wings were angled slightly forward to create a sense of embrace. The angel was based on Gormley’s cast of his own body. 

A marquette/replica of The Angel of the North 
valued at £1m back in 2008

The plaque beside the Angel reads "The hill top site is important and has the feeling of being a megalithic mound. When you think of the mining that was done under­neath the site, there is a poetic resonance. Men worked beneath the surface in the dark. It is important to me that the Angel is rooted in the ground, the complete antithesis of what an angel is, floating about in the ether. It has an air of mystery." The statue was to represent the past, present and the changing times of the nation.

Antony Gormley, Another Place sculptures
in Merseyside

Despite the originally strong opposition, The Angel is now considered to be a land­mark for N.E England. Just in case car accidents might result from the stat­ue's special position near the A1 motorway, trees were planted to hide the sculpture from the road exactly where it passes closest. For those of us not driving around in the UK, the best cultural reference is in the tv detective show Vera (2011-) which uses the Angel to establish its Northumberland setting.

Gateshead Council spent decades putting art in public places, giving the area a national and international arts profile. Later more Gormley’s sculptures (2005) appeared on Crosby Beach in Merseyside, 10 ks from Liver­pool. Another Place consists of 100 cast-iron, life-size fig­ures spread along 3 ks of the fore­shore. The series stretched 2.5 ks down the coast and 1 k out to sea, with an average distance between the pieces of 500 metres, increasingly submerged and re­veal­ed as the tide comes in and goes out. The figures, 189 cm tall and weighing 650 kg, were made from casts of the artist's own body standing on the beach. All of them looking out to sea, staring at the horizon in sil­ent expect­ation.


Train Man said...

Imagine digging in a dark coal mine, without fresh air. The angel should represent a life that workers would never have to return to.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Darling Hels,

The work of Antony Gormley is well known to us, particularly his human forms in rather bleak settings for which he is generally best known.

We feel that his works tend to combine feelings of melancholy or nostalgia with those more positive emotions of triumph or inspirational achievement. So, in our view, his works capture the mood of the moment in these strange times.

The vulnerability and fragile nature of human beings is combined with an inner and outward strength. This reminds us of the need for humans of reassurance and comfort whilst also recognising the power of the human spirit to overcome troubles.

The 'Angel of the North' is a perfect example.

Fun60 said...

I like Gormley's work and have been fortunate enough to see a few of his exhibitions. The outdoor work Another Place is for me the most impressive. Enjoyed your informative post very much.

Hels said...

Train Man

After peak production in 1913, Northumberland and Durham's coal industry was facing depression. While WW1 increased the economic and political importance of coal, the regions' difficulties in the interwar decades were becoming obvious. This was particularly the case for exporting regions, as international customers were lost during the war and those countries found new suppliers. So while coal mining was disastrous for the men under the ground, unemployment was worse in NE England than in other regions.

The significance of the Angel was clear to everyone - to signify the place coal miners had worked themselves to death under the ground.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I too combine feelings of melancholy and nostalgia, on one side, with the more positive emotions of triumph or inspirational achievement. And Gormley was certainly a man of his time and place. No-one would argue with the need for humans of reassurance and comfort whilst also recognising the power of the human spirit to overcome troubles, but it was very special that Gormley could do it!

Hels said...


Spouse and I spent 2 years in London and the Home Counties, and then regular visits to Oxford, Cambridge, East Anglia, Manchester, Bath and the full length of the southern coast. But we have only been to Northumberland and Durham once, and that was only for 2 weeks.

What a shame... I had so much learning to do, once we got back home.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Public art often packs a powerful statement, and I always enjoy encountering it. The examples of Gormley's work that you show here, although these works are powerful and evocative, instead of reassuring and uplifting, I personally find them a bit desolate and menacing.

bazza said...

I tend to agree with Jim/Parnassus. Pictures of the Angel of the North are fairly uninspiring BUT when seeing it from the road or the train it's impact is mighty! The symbolic importance of Gormley's work is paramount to the local population and I think Gateshead Council are to be congratulated for promoting public art!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s mockingly menacing Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

bazza said...

Incidentally, The Orbit sculpture in London's Olympic Park is now the UK's tallest - it's way over 100m tall!

Andrew said...

It is a wonderful sculpture and I've seen it twice. Initially after completion there certainly were car accidents as people slowed or stopped where they could see The Angel of the North. I forget if it is the A1 or A167 but there is now space to safely pull off the road into a car parking area.

Hels said...


Thanks for your honest response. Art was meant to be a discussion between the artist and the viewer. And as long as the art was in the privacy of a home or gallery etc, the viewer could choose whether he wanted to engage or not. But public art was always different. The artist, or the Council, had no idea whether you would find the art uplifting or desolate.

Hels said...


From the very beginning in the 1980s, I too thought Gateshead Council members were to be congratulated for promoting public art in their region. Until then, everything cultural seemed to be concentrated in the south, and the north seemed to be deprived. Nowadays most of the local population are very proud of Gormley's works.

Hels said...


oops, I forgot about Orbit in London. I will change my comment about height straight away.

Hels said...


I knew about the Gateshead Stop the Statue Campaign, but I knew nothing about the car accidents by fascinated passers by.. if the two are even connected. Having safe parking spaces seems very sensible.

mem said...

Just to throw in a bit of trivia . Apparently one of the Marquettes of the The Angel achieved the highest ever valuation for an item on Antiques Roadshow. It achieved 1 million pounds so I guess Mr. Gormley's efforts have been vindicated in EVERY way now !!

Hels said...


Well done for knowing that! Gateshead Council used the bronze scale model in fundraising in the 1990s. And as popular as the model was, it is amazing that this item was valued at £1 million on the BBC show Antiques Roadshow way back in 2008. Much loved yes, but not even an antique.

I will add a photo into the post.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I hadn't realised the backstory to his artworks up in the north ... I've seen briefly one of his sculptures in Oxford - but sometime must spend some time being nearer the sculptures. The Maquette just such a wonderfully beginning of the actual sculpture, scale models have been used for centuries ... thanks for telling us more - all the best - Hilary

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde Hels. Que vontade de conhecer esse lugar.

Hels said...


I had a mid life change in 1990 and went back to university, this time to study art history: paintings, sculpture, architecture and decorative arts. And although I spent endless hours on three of those art forms, I don't remember doing ANY sculpture subjects!

Thus when Gateshead Council's Art in Public Places Panel started its programme, it was something of a surprise and delight. And driving past the Angel, twice, was even better.

Hels said...


when travel is normal and there is no pandemic, do you ever get to Britain and the rest of Europe?

CherryPie said...

I love the 'Angel of the North' statue, it is so perfectly placed to draw and tantalize the eye.

Hels said...


It was not totally surprising that the Gateshead Council was split about the public sculpture for years - half of them thought it was too expensive, too big and too ugly. But the other half fought on and did get the community on side on the Angel's behalf. Now everyone, as you say, finds it tantalising.

Hels said...


I was very thrilled to see your image of Gormley's statue in London called The Cloud. A great link and perfect timing:

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Hi Hels - that is a fabulously detailed account; loads of interesting detail that I, for one, had no idea about. Safety-wise, I should say that the Angel is still a hazard - the trees haven't grown sufficiently, and one looks for it anyway. I know nothing about art but, personally, I find the Angel impressive, without speaking to me about the area and its heritage. It should certainly be visited, and admired. That said, I find Another Place evocative. Maybe people bang on too much about coal, particularly those that, simplistically, blame 'the Tories' for its demise. Or maybe the Angel it would have meant more if Gormley had created something that resonated more - coal, shipbuilding - such a rich history. And, as a minor point, Gormley is not a young artist (sorry Antony! It's best you hear this from an admirer.)

Hels said...


by Antony Gormley being from a generation of young British artists who emerged "recently", I mean he is a] younger than Rembrandt and b] younger than me :) My passion was always for 17th century Dutch artists!

But onto even something serious. If you, and many others, say that the Angel is still a hazard to drivers, then reports have to be sent to the Gateshead Council. Public art is to draw visitors to the area, not to hospitalise them.