The Angel of the North’s iconic status is taken for granted. Yet it was so nearly never made. The 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 didn’t,” says Gormley.
“By midday, we had 2,000 people there.”
Gary Porter, who drove the 48-wheel trailer carrying 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 wouldn’t 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 mine workings – that piqued his interest and persuaded him to visit.
Anna Pepperall, the visual arts manager in Gateshead Council’s art 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’re 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 didn’t 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’re serious about this, it has to be about five double-decker buses high.”
He laughs at the memory of their stunned silence.