About Field for the British Isles

Field for the British Isles (1993) is an installation piece comprising around forty thousand individual terracotta figures. Each one is unique and is simply fashioned, with holes for eyes. The figures completely occupy the space in which they are installed, filling the space so the viewer can look at the figures, but cannot enter the space they occupy. It is the largest single artwork in the Arts Council Collection. 

Gormley has described Field as ‘…twenty-five tons of clay energised by fire, sensitised by touch and made conscious by being given eyes…a field of gazes which looks at the observer making him or her its subject. For the artist ‘Field’ is like a living organism: like water it settles in place, it doesn’t organise it.’  

Field for the British Isles was made by Gormley in 1993 with 100 volunteers from Merseyside who were each given a portion of clay and instructions for the size and shape he wanted for the figures. To create the work the artist collaborated with Tate Liverpool and pupils from two schools in St Helens in Merseyside (Sutton Community High and Sherdley County Primary) along with their families and others living in the vicinity. This collaborative process  has always been key to Gormley’s concept of his Field works. The figures were fired at a local brickmaking company, who also supplied the clay. The process of working with about 100 people took a week. In the artist’s words, “That repeated action of taking a hand-sized ball of clay, squeezing it between your hands, standing it up and giving it consciousness becomes meditative, the repeated action becoming almost like breathing, or a heartbeat”. The individual figures range in size from 8 to 26 centimetres in height. The artist described the process of making the work as “a kind of harvesting – it’s about tilling the earth with your hands but instead of making something grow it is the earth you are forming directly. The harvest comes from within the people, or the thing that is growing comes out of the people”.  

After being acquired by the Arts Council Collection in 1995, Field for the British Isles has been exhibited at a variety of venues across the UK, including Salisbury Cathedral, Hayward Gallery London and Tate St Ives. At each location, the configuration of Field is changed to fill the space, but the thousands of small figures are always arrayed to resemble a dense carpet, with each figure looking directly at the viewer. In the artist’s words, “the challenge for contemporary art is to engage with the contemporary world without adding to the noise. I would like the work to make eloquent stillness and silence and to let us make contact with our whole selves”.  

Antony Gormley won the Turner Prize in 1994 and created the Angel of the North. He is renowned for his distinctive representations of the human form. He has described “the making of sculpture” as a need “to inscribe on an indifferent universe some indication that we were here … [that] we have consciousness and they have eternity, or something close to what a rock has, the capability of enduring time longer than we do”. 

Image credit: Antony Gormley, Field for the British Isles, 1993. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist. Acquired in 1995 with the assistance of the Art Fund and The Henry Moore Foundation.

On loan from the prestigious Arts Council Collection, the project has been made possible thanks to a grant from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund and is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. 

This is the third in our series of Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme exhibitions. Find out more about the programme online.  

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