Although it has only been in place since 1998, the Angel of the North has become a familiar landmark and an iconic symbol for the north-east of England. It is the best-known sculpture by British artist Antony Gormley (born 1950), and is one of the few pieces of modern art to be regarded with almost universal acclaim.
The Angel is a steel structure that stands 65 feet (20 metres) tall with a “wingspan” of 175 feet (54 metres) that is similar to that of a jumbo jet. It stands on a grassy mound near the junction of the A1 and A167 to the south of Gateshead, and can be seen by north-bound travellers on the A1, rising above the trees (it is not so easy to see when driving south). When first seen, you know that you are entering “Geordieland” and are being welcomed with “open wings”.
The site of the Angel is a former coalmine, the products of which fuelled the prosperity of Gateshead in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the last pits closed in the 1970s amid a period of industrial and social decline. The Angel therefore serves as a memorial for the region’s past industries and the people who worked in them, but is also a symbol of more recent regeneration. The mound on which the Angel stands is actually where the pithead baths used to be, and the structure is fixed on piles that go 72 feet (22 metres) into the ground. It therefore links the earth and the sky very effectively.
The Angel weighs 200 tons and must withstand the high winds that frequently blow in from the North Sea across this exposed site.
The project dates from a commission that Antony Gormley was given in 1994 to create a feature that would complete the reclamation of the colliery site, and it was four years later that the steel sections began to arrive, having been manufactured by Hartlepool Steel Fabrications, a company renowned for making sections for bridges and oil rigs. The ribbed body and wings therefore resemble the steelwork to be found on such constructions. The building of the Angel was engineered by Ove Arup and Partners.
The Angel was built from Corten steel, which is an alloy that weathers to a natural rust-red that adds a warm colour. Although the Angel has no face, her body is shaped in a female form, and the wings are angled slightly inwards to suggest an embrace.
The Angel can only be visited on foot, and car parking in the vicinity is limited. Visitors must park in a lay-by on the A167 and walk back to the Angel. They can then stand underneath the Angel’s wings and clamber over its massive feet. There is no visitor centre, and only an information board to give basic facts about the statue. The Angel therefore speaks for herself and is not spoilt by the trappings of tourism.
The Angel of the North, due to its position, can claim to be the most frequently seen piece of art in the United Kingdom. Apart from the 150,000 visitors a year, 90,000 people see it every day as they drive along the A1. It is also clearly visible from trains on the East Coast main line railway as they approach Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Despite its relative newness, it is now firmly established, along with the Tyne Bridge, as an enduring symbol of Tyneside.