This article is part of the series ‘Made You Look’ which aims to explore the meaning behind the art we see every day in and around Durham.
By Caitlin Allard
Walking to and from Wetherspoons I always had to dodge the group of metal men outside the Gala Theatre. I never paid much attention to them, just thought it was slightly odd that there was a statue of men carrying a coffin outside Lloyds. Only upon closer research, I found that it is a statue by Fenwick Lawson, entitled ‘The Journey.’ It was created to tell the story of monks carrying the body of St Cuthbert to the place of the cathedral in 995 AD, marking the foundation of Durham. This copy of the wooden original on Lindisfarne cost a surprising £250,000, £180,000 of which was raised by a two-year public campaign. How could a publicly funded statue fall into such obscurity?
Fenwick Lawson has crafted various statues around Durham, one of which is ‘Cry for Justice – The Scream’ outside the Bill Bryson library. He is from a mining family in South Moor village, Durham. He is a member of Hatfield’s Senior Common Room with over 30 years of links with the university, and in 2008 received an honorary degree from Durham University. He uses wood and chainsaws to create his art, and his sculptures are often coated in bronze to preserve them.
Lawson’s work in the ’60s and ’70s was based in the mainstream sphere of ‘art for art’s sake’. He felt his work needed to be more fulfilling, and so decided to redefine it to hold more morals, to ‘engage with the human condition’, according to his biography. This led many of his later works, including ‘The Journey’, to surround religious metaphors, and to express consciousness of humanity beyond religious narratives.
‘The Journey’ on one level shows St Cuthbert’s body being moved to the site of what is now the Cathedral after monks fled from a Danish invasion. It shows the struggle of this movement and the founding of Durham itself. The pained expression on the faces of the carriers is emphasized by Lawson’s use of a chainsaw to carve their faces. Perhaps, like ‘Cry for Justice – The Scream’, it acts as a reminder of the privilege to live in Durham: the struggle that was involved in its creation, and the determination that was needed to live and study where we do.
Why is it there?
A representation of a religious pilgrimage seems oddly placed outside a prime location for clubbing in Durham. It was unveiled there by Princess Anne in 2008 because the Millenium Square was supposed to become the cultural centre of Durham.
Lawson described the piece, in an interview with the BBC, as “a kind of baby”, and of his creative process and its following unveiling, stated “the piece has been born in privacy, and this piece has been carved in the quiet of the studio, if you like in the quiet of the studio and the stillness of the studio, to some extent it’s being exposed and that exposure is a little bit nerve-racking.”
Lawson was clearly conscious of the “exposure” of the piece and felt an intimate connection with the artwork. His apparent nervousness was not displaced: the statue is often covered in vomit from club-goers at the weekend.
In 2015, upon a visit to the site, Lawson stated “I went to take a photo and there was vomit on it. Well, that made up my mind that this is the wrong place for it.”
Following this discovery came widespread pressure for the statue to be moved to just outside the cathedral, leading up to the shrine of St Cuthbert. Lawson said he believed this would be ‘”the best place for people to understand it.” Roberta Blackman-Woods MP pushed for the move to the North Cemetery, and petitions were created both for and against the move.
Ultimately, however, the 6-foot, 2.5 tonne sculpture remains where it was. It is still used as a “public urinal” and is regularly coated with sick. But, although Millenium Square has not turned out to be the cultural centre of Durham, it is gradually becoming more of a hub for events in Durham.
In the past 6 months alone, the area has been the site of major events in Durham. Lumiere 2017 placed a host of installations in the area, including glowing umbrellas, the ‘periodic table’ of the emotions of people attending the light festival, and interactive sound and light shows. Culture in the area is increasing.
It has also acted as a political centre: in November 2017, far-right protesters were met with a counter-demonstration in Millenium Square. It seems ironic that far-right, anti-refugee groups chose to protest next to a statue of six refugees themselves, fleeing the Danish invasion of Lindisfarne. The protestors would not live in Durham if it were not for those represented by the statue.
‘The Journey’ is bleakly obscure in its current position: its lack of context makes it merely a sombre addition to the surrounding Nando’s, Chiquito and Gala Theatre. If more people learn about it, or if the Council at least put a plaque nearby, hopefully, it will be appreciated less as a “public urinal” and more as a piece of art with an important message of freedom in the foundations of where we live.
Photograph: Maddie Flisher