The aftermath of the recession is beginning to tell on the quality of new work in the northern half of Britain. However, earlier in the year, I had a chance to visit somewhere worth writing about in an unqualified way. High up on the edge of the moors in County Durham, on the site of a former steelworks, is the most powerful piece of public art in Britain.

A former steelworks: but what a contrast to the former Brymbo Steelworks which I wrote about in 2012. Tony Cragg’s work, Terris Novalis, is protean. While I was still at architecture school, a huge remediation project was coming to an end high up on the skirt of the Pennines at Consett. One of the first acts of Thatcher’s government had been to shut Consett steelworks: in the 1960s it made some of the highest technology steel in the world, but in September 1980, the steelworks was shut down, ending 150 years of iron and steel-making in the Derwent Valley.

Visiting Consett today, it’s tough to find anything which stands as a memorial to the Consett Iron Company. There’s little trace of the huge integrated iron and steel works which once stood on the edge of town. By the early 1990’s, the site had been cleared and a cycle path built alongside the course of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway Line – the earliest commercial railway in Britain – by Sustrans, who have developed a national network of routes along the line of abandoned trackbeds.

Part of this railway remained to be the last working railway serving the steel town of Consett but when the works were closed, the line had little future and it too was closed in 1985.  The route was substantially completed as a cycling and walking route by 1990 with the artworks being added between 1988 and 1998. 

Many of Sustrans’ projects incorporated artwork, and at Consett a sculptor was commissioned to create a lasting memorial to the ironworkers of County Durham. When Tony Cragg visited the site, there was nothing left of the steelworks, so he decided to call the project Terris Novalis – literally “new made land”. Once the sculpture was complete, a photo of it was printed in the Press & Journal, and after I’d marvelled at its originality, I clipped it from the page to keep in my shoebox of interesting things.

Cragg made maquettes of the Terris Novalis sculpture in 1992, cast in mild steel: but for the commission in Consett, he blew them up from two metres high to over seven metres high, and cast using stainless steel. They were installed in 1996, with the help of a massive crane. Fifteen years later, coincidentally producing design work for Sustrans myself, I recalled the giant instruments marching across County Durham on their strange feet. When you see it, in the flesh, Terris Novalis is a phenomenal piece of work.

It operates on many levels, from reflecting the craft of the steelworkers who built it which echoes generations of iron and steel production on the site, to the Brobdingnagian scale of a theodolite and an engineer's level which are 20 times the scale of the originals. They hint at the vast size of the former steelworks, and allude to the instruments which surveyors used both to construct the works, and to clear the site afterwards.

The sculpture’s instrumentality as a symbol of regeneration, is as striking as the mythology which Cragg applied to the armorial supporters – the many birds and animals whose feet support these huge chunks of stainless steel. It suggests a medieval bestiary: Terris Novalis’ closest relatives are the griffons and yales which filled the dreams of William Burges. That is fitting, because TN is an ark, carrying its strange cargo of beasts together with the sum of one and a half centuries of human endeavour in semlting coal, coke, ore and lime together to create iron.

I’ve trailed across Europe looking at lots of post–industrial sites, from Saarland and Volklingen; Zollverein in the Ruhr; the Ghent-Terneuzen corridor in Belgium; to the stalking cranes of Clydeside, and I recognise that each time a derelict iron dinosaur is regenerated, some public art is left to refract what went before. Each regeneration uses the civilising influence of public art in order to demonstrate how enlightened its patrons are. But none have the impact of Terris Novalis.

Not even the “Angel of the North”, which was commissioned a few years later and a few miles up the road, but adopted exactly the opposite approach. Terris Novalis plays games with hierarchies of scale, and keeps on resolving more and more detail the closer you get, whereas the Angel is simply big, in order to be taken in at a glance from the motorway.

Anthony Gormley’s work has become postcard-famous as the symbol of Gateshead, and in so doing he has become one of the best known artists in Britain. Tony Cragg, who works in Germany, has slipped from public notice since his Turner Prize win in 1988. Perhaps that suits the slightly mysterious character of Terris Novalis: there is no plaque, sign or interpretation board to explain what it is, or why it landed in Templetown on the outskirts of Consett.

Terris Novalis tells a complex tale of the relationship between nature, man and technology whereas the Angel merely abstracts the plane which lies above mankind. TN is made from stainless steel, a magical material which resists time, whereas the Angel (as much as I love CorTen steel) is dissolving back into oxides. As a result, TN could be seen to represent man’s mastery over metals through the very processes which went on at Consett.

The Angel was conceived as an icon for the area, and public funds were poured into it, whereas it was brave of Sustrans to commission something so ambitious, given that their main purpose was building bike routes. They had commissioned sculptures before, such as the little runnels of “concrete poetry” on the Tarka Trail in the South-west of England, and cast iron quotation discs inset into the bike paths which criss-cross Bristol.

However, the striding beast of Terris Novalis was the largest and by far the most ambitious artwork they’d tackled. Cast from solid stainless steel, from originals carved by Tony Cragg, the sculpture can be seen from miles away. At the time, it was contentious, because Cragg works in Wuppertal, Germany, so the stainless steel was cast in Düsseldorf – ironic, really, when it found itself landing on the site of a British steelworks.

Nonetheless, Tony Cragg was the right sculptor for the job, as he has an instinctive sympathy for the processes of iron founding and steel casting. As he noted in a lecture he gave in 1990 at UCLA in Los Angeles about his early career, “For one year I did a general course [at the art college], and at the end of that course I had a job working in a foundry near Bristol which made parts for electric motors, casting parts, and this was a really fantastic experience for me because the factory we worked in was a very, very long hall.

“It was about 200-300 metres long, very high and very black. We worked for 10 hours through the night, it was a nightshift job. I remember the way the moulds were prepared in sand and the metal was poured in the moulds, then the moulds were very slowly moved up the hallway, cooling down, and at some point they went over a shaker and the moulds would fall into the ground.

“The red glowing machines came out of the ground on the one side, and the sand came out of the ground on the other, and there was a huge ever-growing cone of black sand. It was a job that I very much liked doing, a very physical job with a lot of excitement about it, somehow, just the process with the materials which I found incredibly exciting.”

The nature of the sculpture’s coming into being reveals the unalloyed truth about what we lost when Consett Works closed.

All photos are copyright Mark Chalmers: please contact me if you’d like to use them.

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