The commissioning process of ‘Cipher Wave (Alexandra’s Angel)’
After completing the ‘Templar Stone’ commission in 2004 I was invited by Swindon Borough Council, on behalf of David Wilson Homes, to consider submitting a sculptural design for their new housing development called Alexandra Park, south of Wroughton, near Swindon in Wiltshire. It was to be situated on the site of the recently demolished ‘Princess Alexandra RAF Hospital’ which had served the local civilian, as well as the military, community, and for which feelings still ran high.
I was pleased to accept this invitation as I was familiar with the site in two ways. My step-father had served at nearby RAF Lyneham, Air Transport Command for many years where he was co-responsible for keeping aloft the trusty fleet of Hercules aircraft, and we had had cause as a family to use the Hospital several times. Secondly, and more happily, it was passed on the way up to my favourite Neolithic-populated chalk downlands and Barbury Castle, an ancient hill fort on Ridgeway.
I was just about to leave for a two month trip to New Zealand so I took the idea with me.
The new houses were to be of a typically standard estate design so I knew straight away that my piece would have to be a circle, to cut through the squares. Also I had a 5m long block of Kilkenny Limestone waiting in Cornwall which I really wanted to use. This block was intended originally for the Templar Stone job but after getting it hauled from Kilkenny, on the assurance it was fault free, we found it wasn’t – my fault for not checking it myself. A piece of sturdy Portuguese granite was used instead.
With this new design I knew I could get rid of the weakened part and expose the rich potential of this gloriously fossil-filled and metamorphosed brooding dark stone.
The Brief was very loose, just to relate to the site in some way, and the budget was quite small for the scale I was envisaging, but it excluded the fixing costs as DWH could do that which was great. It would be tight but my business head was over ruled by desire to do the job should I get it.
Several maquettes emerged. It was strange being as far away as possible from Wiltshire but the place was in my blood, especially its Neolithic history. Coincidentally, I found myself being able to access one of the closely guarded and equally ancient Stone Age sites in North Island, which pre-dated by far the Maori presence on the Islands. So unsurprisingly, I found the language of our shared past to be universal and felt inspired to continue, strengthened in my feeling to relate this piece to wider landscapes, peoples, times and most important of all, to be healing in its intention, and to reach across boundaries of all kinds.
The design got stuck on totem-like representations of figures within the body of an eagle-type form encircled by hollow wings, but I was not happy with this old illustrative approach. I began again with a much simplified response to the clay and a more abstracted and stronger ‘angel’ figure emerged.
The idea for the reflective stainless steel wings then came easily, practicalities dictating their outcome: the aircraft-like fins on which to hang the two sections, and, to pierce the wings in order to lessen wind resistance, I used the Mayan Tzolkien calendar, which happily also introduced their concept of cyclical time.
So, with final maquette duly made and packed in my suitcase for the presentation, I felt, once back home, that I’d probably been far too fanciful in my thoughts for the taste of the selection committee. However, it was all I had and they proved me wrong.
So then to the logistics. I had nowhere to actually carve such a big block but Frank and Alick Edwards of Stert Manor Farm near Devizes were recommended to visit, I did and they could not have been kinder about the project. The stone was hauled up from Cornwall and sunk 90cm into the ground on the corner of a glorious meadow. Kidd Farm Machinery of Devizes were to fabricate the wings and fins, and welder friends Chris Dale and son Ben, also in Devizes, agreed to take on the challenge of actually building the piece.
We had to wait for planning permission and this was frustrating as fine summer carving weather was being lost, I could see it going into winter as the deadline was July06, and it did but fortunately it was a mild one and so all was ok in the end.
In the Spring the stone was uprooted and carted to Chris’s workshop, nestled safely within a purpose built cradle, and set up horizontally in his yard. Chris is sadly no longer with us but I shall always remember and be grateful for his cheery smile and easy way of knowing that somehow we would overcome all obstacles. They had to weld half of it from underneath and we couldn’t see it in its entirety until finally erected, trusting that all was straight and square.
I had worked with the DWH’s architect and surveyor to make sure the sculpture would meet Health and Safety regulations and we added a 60cm square cage to the bottom of the stone for extra stability – I’d wanted every possible cm above ground.
So the great transporting day finally arrived. A ‘wide load’ warning vehicle had to be employed as the wings extended beyond the Hi-Ab’s bed. It was a wild and windy day and I pretty nervous, but the whole installation went like clockwork, so exciting to see the big stuff going on and all from my delicate thoughts in card and clay, and one of the best parts of being a Sculptor.
All those involved seemed happy, the finished piece looked good on its pre-landscaped mound, and it was STRAIGHT. The residents spontaneously named it The Angel. I had avoided that claim by the coy use of my obscure title, which came from the encoded wing piercings, but happy they should make the association.
I was fortunate with this commission to be left largely to my own devices. However, I equally enjoy a collaboration with the client as completely new ideas can form and expand around a dialogue, all of which are to be welcomed. Yet whatever the theme, my underlying intention for any piece is that, if possible, it instills a sense of calm.