Whilst visiting Heysham for the Viking festival, I got to see the recent addition of public art by Anna Gillespie: ‘Ship’. This piece is large and responds to the sweep of the landscape in which is installed. It resonates with Lancashire’s maritime heritage and its coastal landscape and is thus worthy of discussion here because of its overt connections to the deep-time story of place and movement along Britain’s Irish Sea coast. It is also brand-new: installed in March 2019.
The location was carefully chosen overlooking Half Moon Bay. This brand-new sculpture funded by the Heritage Fund and commissioned by Morecombe Bay Partnership is noteworthy, not because of any particular significance in its precise position just upslope from the beach and on the coastal footpath between the Half Moon Cafe and Heysham village. It is thus poised between past and present: to its north is the headland and rocks behind which, out of sight, is St Patrick’s chapel with its Anglo-Saxon architecture and rock-cut graves. To the south, along the coast, one can see Heysham Port and Heysham Nuclear Power Station. The sculpture is parallel to the coastal path and beach below and has rising meadow to its east, and the sea to its west.
At one level, this is a monumental bench, with a white stone plinth serving as both the locus of the installation and a place to repose and gaze inland or over the coast and sea. At another, it evokes an historic (?Viking) ship, but comprised of bronze and steel. Given the high angle of the prow and stern, and their symmetry and disconnection, evoking a connection in the imagination beneath the sand, it might be better conceptualised as a broken wreck rather than an intact boat: a modern ruin and a run-aground wreck.
The ship-form might take one’s imagination to distant times and past sea voyages from prehistory, through the Roman period and into medieval times, commemorating the longue duree of coastal and cross-Irish Sea traffic both before and during the Viking period. It might link these pasts with more recent centuries and the sustained importance of this vicinity for maritime commerce and trade, inter-visible as it is with Heysham Port. The claim that this is a specific allusion to the ‘Viking’ ship and a Viking past specifically through its boat form might overlook this more complex story, but it of course alludes, perhaps by accident, to ship-shaped stone settings found in parts of Scandinavia and dating to the Bronze Age and Iron Age (early medieval period).
Upon each stem human figure is seated looking out along the coast. Each of these ‘boatmen’ have hollow chests – to me they appear part living, part corpse – look out from the ‘wreck’ of the sculpture. Perhaps one looks to the past, towards St Patrick’s chapel, the other to the present and future, towards the power station. Maybe they frame different directions of coastal travel, or observation out from the coast. Are they witnesses of deaths beneath the waves along the coast, ghostly sentinels looking out over space and time and reflecting on the fortunes and perils of this coastal environment? In this regard, the sculpture is a reflection on time-space geography in this coastal landscape, but might it also be about mortality?