How we made The Angel of the North

Angel of the North

Antony Gormley: ‘I nearly pulled out when a paper ran a story headlined: Nazi but nice’

Antony Gormley, artist

I was rather standoffish at first. There was a site near Gateshead, an old pithead, and the local council wanted to build something. I think there’d been some kind of international competition, but they hadn’t been terribly pleased with the results. I said: “I don’t make art for motorways.” But then I saw a photograph of this mound on the hill, with a deep valley below. It looked like something from the iron age, really extraordinary. So I went for a look.

As I walked up to it, I remember a local councillor saying: “We need one of your angels.” It struck me as a good idea: something bearing witness to the men who’d worked there, but also pointing to the future. I realised early that it’d need to be at least three doubledecker buses high. I did a few sketches, pretty thumbnail, and then made models: five or six, hand-size at first, ending with a human-size version. It took about a year. We ended up making an actual-size model of the knees, to understand how the scale would work. The biggest challenge is making a thing that looks as if it’s the right size, rather than a small thing made big.

Quite a lot of people didn’t want it: there was a campaign to stop the Angel, lots of negative stories. A local paper dug up pictures of some totalitarian winged figure commissioned during the Third Reich and ran it under the headline: NAZI … BUT NICE. I nearly pulled out – I had no interest in foisting this thing on anyone. But the planners talked me round, the council backed it, and people started to get on board.

Right from the beginning, I’d been thinking of ships and the Tyne – a ship’s hull turned inside out. We spent months driving around engineering firms in the north-east in an old van. This was the early 1990s, when the shipyards were going and the mines were being shut. Eventually, we found a place that had what we needed, with specialised welders and plate-workers. The structure was fillet-welded, which is an amazingly precise skill used to make vessels watertight. That was the magic moment, really, finding out you could make it in 6mm ship-plate. It was thrilling, making weekly visits up to Hartlepool, watching this skeleton turn into a hull.

I think that’s why the Angel worked: it was an extraordinary collective effort, requiring thousands of conversations. As it went on, I had less and less to do with it. The Angel was made by the skills of the north-east.

John Thornton, engineer

The foundations were massive: we had to put in concrete piles, 20 metres deep. But that was the easy part, relatively. You just do some sums based on the weight and factor in the wind. It was the ankles that were hard. They had to be slim, even though that’s where all the stress is, that’s where all the hard work is being done. When the wind is blowing on a human being, you move constantly to compensate. Obviously, we couldn’t do that here, so we had to think carefully about how to make them strong enough.

The second big thing was the wings: flex is fine, but if they begin to flutter, it’s game over. They’ll tear the structure apart. Antony’s first drafts had tapered wings like a Spitfire’s, but in the end we went for ones that were quite chopped-off. It’s funny: the Angel is huge, it weighs 200 tonnes. But, with the wind and the weather, it was as if it was actually flying.

They had to transport the body and wings separately on low loaders during the night. Streets had to be cleared of all their fixtures, and whole areas cordoned off, everyone watching from a distance. I wasn’t worried that it would fall down: in engineering, the things that go wrong are the things that are done so frequently someone forgets to check. Even so, it was a relief when the crane lowered it into place. It felt like a religious experience.

I had to talk my wife out of buying a cushion with a picture of the Angel on it. I thought it was a bit much. But whenever I pass it, I think: “That’s nice, I did that.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Interviews by Andrew Dickson, for The Guardian on Tuesday 29th March 2016 07.00 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010