Between two fields on the outskirts of a 1960s new town in Northumberland is a startling, track-stopping sculpture passed by on a regular basis by hardly anyone: it’s a giant 15ft spoon.
Outside Dorset county hospital is a vizsla dog, always well behaved because it was made by Elisabeth Frink in bronze. On the Isle of Man the three disco dudes swaggering down the promenade are the Bee Gees.
The spectacular view from a Nando’s in Harlow, meanwhile, is a beautiful bronze of Eve which Auguste Rodin originally intended as part of his Gates of Hell project in Paris.
In total there are more than 13,500 public sculptures dotted around the UK, an art education charity has discovered, as it announced the success of a project to photograph and digitise every single one of them.
Art UK has already documented the 200,000-plus oil paintings in Britain’s public collections. In 2019 it announced it was turning its attention to sculpture and has now, it said, completed its dizzyingly ambitious project to document all the UK’s outdoor sculptures, whether that’s Cramlington’s giant spoon or the 175 statues, fountains, bandstands and clocktowers dedicated to Queen Victoria.
It felt like a thrilling moment, said Andrew Ellis, director of Art UK. “This project to document sculpture in the UK’s outdoor spaces is not only a significant milestone for our charity, but also anyone who cares about public art or simply wants to find out more about that sculpture they walk past every day.”
At the heart of the project are more than 500 volunteers who have scoured the UK for works, from Stornoway for Herring Girl, to the recently unveiled Victorian fossil hunter Mary Anning in Lyme Regis. More than 140,000 photographs of the works from different angles have been taken.
The project shows that there are about 70 Henry Moore sculptures on display outdoors and more than 30 Barbara Hepworths. There’s an Eric Morecambe in Morecambe, a Captain Mainwaring in Thetford and a Princess Pocahontas in Gravesend.
The new database shows that only 2% of sculptures of named individuals are of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Women make up just 17% of the public sculptures depicting or commemorating named people.
“It is interesting but quite frankly it didn’t surprise us,” said Ellis. “Hopefully what’s happening is that we are starting to see that slowly change as new public sculptures are put up. The data shows that the nation’s named sculptures do not represent the society we live in today.”
Art UK also said it had nearly completed a parallel project to document all sculptures of the last thousand years which are in public collections, of which there are 36,000 so far. Next up, it hopes, are murals and ceramics.
The artist Rana Begum said it was an amazing project. “I think, especially with the pandemic, people are online and they are looking to see where public sculptures are located, they are looking for things to do.”
Public art lifts spirits, said Begum, but also encourages conversations between people. “It’s important for mental health and also just connecting people. Public art allows people to take a pause in their busy, crazy days.”
Public art can often be controversial and divisive – Maggi Hambling’s naked spirit of womanhood figure celebrating Mary Wollstonecraft, for example – but generally the response is cheerful.
Begum recently installed a wildly colourful public artwork on London City Island in east London. “The response has been so positive with really lovely feedback from people who live and work there,” she said. “Each day the work changes because of the weather and the light and that’s what’s exciting about having a work in the public realm. It’s constantly reacting to the things around it.”
Antony Gormley, creator of one of the UK’s most famous and loved public sculptures, the Angel of the North, also welcomed the project’s success.
“This is a wonderful resource allowing all of us to know and visit the works that we collectively own,” he said. “Many exist in open space, whether rural or urban, and can be visited day or night whatever the season … works that can truly be lived with and that enrich and deepen our experience of their surroundings.”
Ellis said it was not just about creating a database; the idea was also to tell stories behind the works and create walking tours.
Art UK also has a “detective agency” to help identify unknown sitters or creators. There will inevitably be works which have slipped through the gaps, and Ellis is asking for public help.
“We couldn’t be so arrogant as to think we’ve got everything. The great thing about having a living and online record is that it is very easy to update as other works are put up or anything we’ve missed,” he said.