Artist Q&A: Simon Hitchens

We spoke to artist and sculptor, Simon Hitchens whose winning proposal to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II and The Commonwealth will see a 55m sculpture, made from Corten weathering steel, erected on Cold Law hill, Northumberland. Read on for more details on The Elizabeth Landmark: Ascendant

Congratulations on your winning proposal, Simon! How does it feel to have won?

I’m extremely pleased, which goes without saying, because the site at Cold Law is beautiful. The landscape of Cold Law really captured my attention and so, to have the opportunity to design a landmark sculpture to be placed in this raw and beautiful landscape is undoubtedly a privilege. 

What are your reasons for using Corten weathering steel for the sculpture?

Corten weathering steel is maintenance-free in that it develops a protective rust layer once it has been exposed to the elements. This is due to the fact the rust oxidises, and then creates an impermeable layer that the weather simply cannot get through.

Plus, Corten weathering steel is very beautiful at holding shadows, which was important to me, as I have deliberately angled lateral fins from the bottom to the top of the sculpture. The stippled, rusty surface of the sculpture works really well with direct sunlight, and the shadows that the fins will cause.

I’m also well aware that iron ore was mined heavily in the local area, and so my decision to use Corten weathering steel, which is a by-product of iron ore, ties in nicely with the fact that its raw material reminds people so hugely of the area.

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Can you go into more detail about the significance of Ascendant’s angle?

First and foremost, I was driven not by making something vertical, because I didn’t want the adjacent wind turbines to compete with the sculpture, but to give the sculpture a sense of jeopardy; a sense of tension, and a sense of awe when seen from afar. Ascendant is very unusual in that respect; you don’t see things of that height, which are cantilevered. 

I think, aesthetically, the angle of the sculpture really works. I love that the sculpture has been hinged out of the hill; if you were to place the form back into the hill, it would disappear entirely. This is due to the curved arc of the top, which is directly informed by the topography of Cold Law hill. The hill is steeper on the North side, and so the sculpture has a sharp bend on that side; it’s straighter on the Southern side, and that’s why the sculpture has the long, straight, pointy line going up into space.

Lastly, the sculpture engages with the summer solstice: day-to-day it will lean towards the sun’s highest point, but if you stand beneath it on the summer solstice, there will be no shadow cast by the sculpture. For me, this gives it an otherworldly edge; a feeling of something bigger than us, which is important when creating a sense of wonderment in the eyes of the beholder.

The Elizabeth Landmark celebrates Queen Elizabeth II and her pivotal role in the evolution of The Commonwealth. How does Ascendant incorporate references to Queen Elizabeth II and The Commonwealth?

 There are lots of features that reference both our Queen and The Commonwealth, not least the name of the sculpture. The number of fins on the sides of the sculpture, for example, stands at 94; if and when the sculpture is built in 2 years’ time, the Queen will be 94.

Also, Ascendant closely resembles a sundial. What is interesting, however, is that the gnomon (the part that creates the shadow, which allows us to tell the time) of sundials in the Northern hemisphere typically face North, yet Ascendant faces South. For this reason, the sculpture wouldn’t be expected to work as a sundial, however, its sheer height will cast a big shadow. I have deliberately marked out various sections of the circumnavigating paths that surround the sculpture in reference to key dates throughout the year. So, if you were to stand on the relevant section on the Queen’s birthday, for example, there will be a shadow directly where you stand for that day only. The shadow will, of course, move and so there will also be marks for the sunrise and sunset of the solstices, plus the two annual Equinoxes.

Within the shelter and viewing area, there will be a Commonwealth flag laid into the paving, featuring 40 quadrilateral speers in a nod to the fact that Queen Elizabeth II is the 40thmonarch to ascend the throne since William the Conqueror in 1066. 

For me, however, the biggest tie to The Commonwealth will be working with fellow creatives, writers and poets in order to place text somewhere within my design – whether that’s within the walk surfaces or, possibly, even carved into the wall of the canyon-like rock slot. There is lots of room for development there!

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What is it about Ascendant’s location that is so significant? 

Rather interestingly, the sculpture and its rock slot point due South, which strongly references its relationship with the rest of The Commonwealth member states; in its location, all other Capital Cities of The Commonwealth member states will be South of Ascendant.

And then, of course, there is the rugged and undulating landscape within which the sculpture sits. This area of Northumberland, on the Ray Estate, has a particularly raw beauty; any sculpture placed within it needs to complement the colour, form, history and memories of this landscape.

Many will know that Charles Parsons, who designed the steam turbine blade, lived on the Ray Estate, and is buried in nearby Kirkwhelpington. There is a real beauty in the steam turbine blade – a beauty I have referenced in the aerodynamic form of this sculpture. 

What are you hoping visitors to Ascendant take away from their experience of both the sculpture and the paths surrounding it?

I hope that the sculpture will deliver so much more, once you’re there, than the first Instagram image you see. I hope to create a sense of wonder and a sense of awe. This is an extraordinary object to behold; to walk around, and to sit with on all sorts of weathers and days. 

Seen from the A68, this will be a striking, eye-catching form: a leaning silhouette against the horizon. I hope that the unexpected nature, and sense of drama this stark yet elegant form exhibits, will draw the inquisitive driver, cyclist or pedestrian to investigate further, which in turn will help create visitor spend within the local area. There is much more to it than first meets the eye, that’s for sure.