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It is a steel sculpture of an angel, 20 metres (66 ft) tall, with wings measuring 54 metres (177 ft) across. The wings do not stand straight sideways, but are angled 3.5 degrees forward; Gormley did this to create "a sense of embrace".
According to Gormley, the significance of an angel was three-fold: first, to signify that beneath the site of its construction, coal miners worked for two centuries; second, to grasp the transition from an industrial to information age, and third, to serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears.
Due to its exposed location, the sculpture was built to withstand winds of over 100 mph (160 km/h). Thus, foundations containing 600 tonnes of concrete anchor the sculpture to rock 70 feet (21 m) below. The sculpture was built at Hartlepool Steel Fabrications Ltd using Corten weather resistant steel. It was made in three parts—with the body weighing 100 tonnes and two wings weighing 50 tonnes each—then brought to its site by road. It took five hours for the body to be transported from its construction site in Hartlepool, up the A19 road to the site.
The Angel aroused some controversy in British newspapers, at first, including a "Gateshead stop the statue" campaign, while local councillor Martin Callanan was especially strong in his opposition. However, it has since been considered to be a landmark for North East England and has been listed by one organisation as an "Icon of England". It has often been used in film and television to represent Tyneside, as are other local landmarks such as the Tyne Bridge and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.
Several maquettes were produced during the development stage of the project. A man-sized model from which the sculpture was created was sold at auction for £2 million in July 2008. An additional bronze maquette used in fundraising in the 1990s, owned by Gateshead Council, was valued at £1 million on the BBC show Antiques Roadshow on 16 November 2008. That was the most valuable item ever appraised on the programme. A maquette was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 2011 and stands in its Sculpture Garden.
Inspired by the Angel of the North, several similar projects have been proposed. The 'Angel of the South' title has been given by some to the Willow Man which sits to the side of the M5 in Somerset, while a project, informally named the Angel of the South, has been proposed in Ebbsfleet, Kent. The sculpture Brick Man (also by Gormley) was proposed for the Holbeck area of Leeds.
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Gormley said of the Angel: "... The effect of the piece is in the alertness, the awareness of space and the gesture of the wings – they are not flat, they're about 3.5 degrees forward and give a sense of embrace."