Sculpting a statuesque future for public art

UAt the unveiling of the Big 'E' memorial at Ellington Colliery are  Ian Lavery president of the NUM, Jack Tubby former Ellington Colliery Managerand Neil Taylor, chairman of the memorial group.
UAt the unveiling of the Big 'E' memorial at Ellington Colliery are Ian Lavery president of the NUM, Jack Tubby former Ellington Colliery Managerand Neil Taylor, chairman of the memorial group.

Public art when I was young was something inherited from the Victorians.

When we went into town – Leicester in my case – the first stop when you got there was called Welford Place.But it was always known as John Biggs, from the smoke-blackened statue of a Victorian gentleman that stood there.

My mother explained to me that he was such a good man that the people put up a statue to him.

She was right. John Biggs was a Chartist and a dedicated reformer, albeit most of the reforms he worked for didn’t happen until after he died.

In Morpeth we have the Hollon Fountain, also a monument to a local benefactor. Richard Welch Hollon founded the Hollon Trust for the benefit of the elderly poor in memory of his wife, who was a Morpeth girl.

That kind of patronage came to an end with the First World War, when income tax went up from six per cent to 30 per cent. After that, the equivalent effort went into war memorials. They are found everywhere, and in many cases are the only public art for miles around.

The 1940s was a decade of austerity, and the next 30 years all about material prosperity.

The demolition of the Euston Arch, which was fought over through the late 1950s and finally happened in 1961, was a turning point. After that, there was at least a pause before a decent 19th Century building or monument was swept away.

The rescue of the Albert Memorial marks the change of attitude.

The Angel of the North was another turning point. It says in the plainest manner possible: “This is art. It’s big, it cost a lot, and it’s for looking at, nothing else.”

The upsurge of public sculpture in South East Northumberland is one of the most remarkable developments of the last 10 years.

With the closure of pits, pieces of now-redundant equipment were set up to remind people of their coal-mining history, usually a tub or a wheel from the pit headgear.

When they are well positioned and properly looked after, tubs and pit wheels make works of art that you can instantly recognise and enjoy.

There is no ‘percent for art’ in English law. But what is called a Section 106 agreement between the planning authority and a developer can be used for that purpose.

I suppose it accounts for some of the early attempts to establish public art once again as part of everyday life, like Glo-bed-rail, the globe made of rails at Blyth Dene in Bedlington, or the Angelfish by the roundabout at the southern entrance to Amble.

Angelfish is unfortunately too small for where it is located.

You’re just aware that there’s an artwork on the grass verge as you speed past, but nothing more.

One reason for the resurgence of figure sculpture in this area is the propensity of Ashington for producing great footballers. People expect a monument to a sporting hero to be lifelike. Abstract won’t do.

But whatever the cause, statues are back. Couple at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, by Sean Henry, was one of the earliest. It is a wonderfully spiritual piece.

The three that we feature are all of miners, but over 80 years apart.

The Woodhorn Colliery disaster happened in 1916, but the monument, now at Woodhorn Museum, was erected in 1923. The figure is of a deputy holding aloft his safety lamp.

Not surprisingly, it bears a strong resemblance to a war memorial, and it may be that there would have been no monument, but for the impulse given by the war.

The Durham Mining Museum website has a list of disaster memorials.

Some were erected a 
century or more after the event.

Some are merely mourning cards or photographs from the time, and while others are actual monuments, they were usually placed in churchyards, like any other grave or memorial.

But the Woodhorn monument was set up in Hirst Park, making a much more public and visible statement.

Robin of Pegswood, originally called Fire, is by Tom Maley of Longhirst. It celebrates the miner as hero, stands in a very public place, and is lit at night.

You would be hard put either to miss it, or not to understand the imagery.

His other piece, the Ellington Colliery Miner, stands on the site of the former colliery entrance.

Like the Angelfish, though for a different reason, it is easily missed. You have to make a deliberate effort to find it. It might, like Robin, be better placed on the traffic island on the village bypass.

It is a more contemplative work. The pit wheel lies on its side, and although the miner stands beside it, he isn’t looking at it.