How the Messenger statue came to Plymouth

PUBLISHED: 09:57 29 May 2019 | UPDATED: 09:57 29 May 2019

Credit John Allen

Credit John Allen

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Call her Bianca or Messenger - the seven-metre high bronze statue welcoming visitors to Theatre Royal Plymouth has taken up her permanent residence to huge applause

The crowning glory on a £7.5 million regeneration project has drawn international praise for its scale - but the pose of the figure goes some way to represent the need for a gender balance of public sculpture.

The £750,000 Messenger is based on a pose struck by the actress playing Bianca in Frantic Assembly's version of Othello, which was co-produced with Theatre Royal Plymouth.

The nickname Bianca has stuck, although the work was named Messenger by Cornish-born artist Joseph Hillier who was commissioned by the theatre to create the dramatic sculpture.

The sculptor spent time in rehearsals and digitally scanned the bodies of actors capturing different poses of characters to create 21 sculptures in bronze, layered wood and brass.

Credit John AllenCredit John Allen

All this work culminated in the final sculpture which made its dramatic arrival at daybreak across Plymouth Sound in March before making the final leg of its journey on a flatbed lorry flanked by police cars as hundreds lined the streets. Already famous, the new addition to Plymouth's public art collection has made headlines around the world.

So is it set to become more famous than the Mayflower? The great and good of Plymouth have outlined their hopes for it - from helping to put Plymouth more firmly on the creative map, to provoking discussion on the role of public art and its need to balance the gender bias that means only one in five statues are of women (the figure drops lower if you only include those in clothes).

"It does not matter what you think of it, what is refreshing is that it has got people talking about the city," says Richard Stevens from Devon Chamber of Commerce. "For me, it is people's open mouths as they see her for the first time - that is priceless."

If art is meant to be inclusive, than this work, which perfectly frames the entrance to the 35-year-old building, succeeds.

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There is endless selfie potential for the grown-ups, while younger visitors are keen to immerse themselves in the work, climbing the feet and hands and providing a human scale to the seven-metre by ten-metre sculpture. The work weighs 3.5 tonnes and is the UK's largest cast bronze sculpture. It was created using an ancient technique of lost wax casting and has been given a patina and wax finish.

This helps to give the impression that the figure always appears in shadow; her features are only hinted at. She is hiding in plain sight. Like a Giacometti sculpture, it is impossible to get close enough to know her. It is this that keeps you looking, as much as it is her impressive scale.

Messenger was officially unveiled by actress Nicola Kavanagh on whom the statue is based. So what's it like to have a fleeting pose on stage become immortalised? She admitted she felt honoured.

"At that specific point we were all in a fight scene so my character was jumping off a wall and waiting for a moment to see what danger was around her," she says of the half-crouching pose. "The whole thing about it was not about where she is going but where she could be going."

Messenger Sculpture. Photo: Ewen MacDonaldMessenger Sculpture. Photo: Ewen MacDonald

Her creation tells a fascinating story which captured the public's imagination from the start. She took shape on a computer screen where Hillier created her via computer-aided design. Broken into pieces the design was first carved from foam to create silicone moulds into which melted bronze was then poured.

These pieces - around 200 in all - were then welded together. "Her name Messenger refers to the pivotal role a performer takes to breathe life into the words of a writer and the intent of a director," explains her creator Joseph Hillier.

Her arrival was certainly memorable. "When she appeared out near the breakwater everybody went silent," Adrian Vinken, OBE, Chief Executive of Theatre Royal Plymouth remembers of her arrival on 18 March. "You never really know, until something comes to reality, whether the vision for something is going to translate into reality, but I think in this case it has.

"When you experience her in the flesh and you see people's reaction and the fact that they are clearly engaged, it's all that we hoped for in this piece of art.

Messenger Sculpture. Photo: Ewen MacDonaldMessenger Sculpture. Photo: Ewen MacDonald

"She will make an impact on the city and hopefully people will come to see her for many years to come because she is rather special."

The sculpture of a woman is also a starting point to counter the many male statues that dominate the UK, adds Hillier.

"If you think about most statues in towns are of men standing motionless… she is very dynamic and that was something that I wanted to capture."

And judging by her first few weeks in situ, visitors are just as keen to capture his work.

Messenger Sculpture. Photo: Ewen MacDonaldMessenger Sculpture. Photo: Ewen MacDonald

Fact file

Messenger is seven metres (23ft) tall and nine metres (30ft) wide and weighs around 3,500kg.

The sculpture is based on a pose struck by the actress playing Bianca in Frantic Assembly's version of Othello.

She forms part of the Theatre Royal Plymouth's £7.5 million regeneration project completed in 2013.

The sculpture was formed in 200 pieces. Each part was carved into foam and transported to Liverpool where Castle Fine Arts Foundry create silicon moulds. These were then taken to a foundry in the Welsh village of Llanrhaeadr, where the bronze casting process began.

Ingots of bronze were heated to 1200˚C and the molten metal is poured into new ceramic moulds. The pieces were then welded together.

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