Emma Rodgers: Wirral sculptor's new statue celebrates Salford's firsts
- Credit: John Cocks
Sculptor Emma Rodgers has created a public sculpture celebrating Salford’s many firsts and some of its most famous faces.
Emma Rodgers, who lives on the Wirral, is no stranger to mass appreciation for her work. Not only did she create the life-size bronze statue of Cilla Black, which stands, arms flung out, outside the Cavern Club where she and so many more had their first taste of fame, but her work was also used by the creators of the Marvel films, first as artefacts for The Collector, in Guardians of the Galaxy and later in the penthouse where Ironman, Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr), lived.
Her bronze of Cilla was unveiled in 2017, but several years before that she was commissioned to create something unique to stand in the square opposite the old Salford Town Hall.
‘It all started seven years ago,’ Emma recounts. ‘X1, the developers who transformed former Salford Town Hall into apartments, always wanted a statue for Bexley Square, opposite the apartments, and donated the money to Salford City Council to make this happen. When the Council then sought tenders for a statue to stand in the square, I was one of the artists who tendered for it, and I won.
‘They didn’t have any preconceptions about what they wanted to place in the square, it was all down to the artist to put forward their ideas. I just started to research about that square, and the more I researched the more I found and it just evolved really – there were so many things that happened first, or among the first, in Salford and in that square that the idea of Salford Firsts just came about.
‘The actual street the square is off, is Chapel Street, where the first gas streetlamps in the country were put in, in 1805. The very first canal in England, the Bridgwater Canal, was built in 1761 and ran from Worsley to Salford. The first horse drawn bus route from Salford to Manchester ran along Chapel Street. The first Manchester to Liverpool public railway, constructed in 1830, ran through Salford, and Peel Park, possibly the first public park, open to all people, was opened in 1846. One of the very first free public libraries was opened on Chapel Street in 1850 and the first and only swing aqueduct in the world – Barton Aqueduct – was constructed in 1893.
‘Salford has such a rich history and I wanted to recognise that, but without overwhelming the viewer.’
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After much pondering, Emma decided to create a horse and streetlamp sculpture, wrapping the many firsts into the whole.
‘I thought to reflect the library, I could incorporate books,’ she says, ‘each cover could have some of this rich history on it. I ran railway tracks along the horse’s harnesses and you will find little steam trains running all over the sculpture. On the left-hand side of the horse there is the canal system that links Salford to Liverpool, with the swinging aqueduct.
‘I then started thinking more about more recent times, so included the iconic little dog from Salford artist Harold Riley’s paintings. I added the Salford Lads Club and one of the City Councillors knew Peter Hook and told him about it and it just then grew organically with more contemporary stuff.’
The horse is covered in messages and sayings from famous Salfordians, including Peter Hook, John Cooper Clark, Graham Nash and actor Albert Finney. There is also a poppy for World War One heroes, and nods to famous Salford sons and daughters such as L.S. Lowry, James Prescott Joule (creator of the Kelvin scale) and Emmeline Pankhurst.
Every square inch is formed by hand: every hair, every letter, every twist, turn and curve, and it’s an extensive, time-consuming process.
‘It took two years to complete, once the Council had approved the design,’ Emma says. ‘And I kept finding new things to add during that time.
‘It starts with a metal armature. I make the statue in miniature first, a maquette, then this is scaled up to create a life-size metal frame, the armature, around which I build layers of clay, to create the final piece. We made the armature at Castle Fine Arts Foundry, in Liverpool, which is where I make all my bronzes. Usually I would complete the whole piece there, but just as I completed the frame, the first lockdown was announced, so we decided to have it delivered to my house and set up in my garden, along with a delivery of a full ton of clay.
‘It was actually really nice to be able to work on it at home. We were home-schooling, of course, but my daughters were able to come and see what I was doing in their breaks. I have a studio at home, but can only create small scale pieces there – they have never seen me working on something of this size before.
‘It was a great distraction during lockdown, and with the fabulous weather I was able to work on it late into the night, too. Most of my work goes to galleries, here and in the US, and of course all of them were closed, so there was no demand for new pieces. I was able to allow myself to be completely taken over by it during the whole of 2020.’
Once the shape is as Emma wants it, she then starts on the detail.
‘I would lose track of time as I worked. Originally it was all about the history, but as time went on, I wanted to add more and more contemporary references. Peter Hook got the word out too, and famous Salfordians were reaching out to ask if they could be included. I was adding new bits right up until the last day I could – we even managed to include the new RHS Garden Bridgewater.’
Once Emma was satisfied, and time had run out, the team from the foundry came to collect the clay and metal statue, ready for the next stage in the process. It is very fragile at this stage, of course, so the next steps, which would normally take place within the foundry, all took place in Emma’s back garden.
'We place plastic borders where the statue will be broken into component parts, then paint layers of silicone over each piece. Next comes a coating of fibreglass. The silicone picks up every tiny detail, even down to fingerprints, and the fibreglass stops it distorting. Once the fibreglass had set, it was broken apart and taken back to the foundry. There, the silicone is peeled from the clay and painted with wax. When you peel the silicone back from the wax, you are left with a copy of each piece of the sculpture, in wax sheets. It’s really skilled work and the team from Castle are wonderful.
‘The wax is coated in another material that sets like concrete around it, with an opening left to drain the heated wax out of, before pouring in the molten bronze. Once this is complete, the pieces are all welded together over a steel armature.’
Emma then steps back in, going over the fine detail of all the metal and patinating it herself, layering colours like water colour paints, using a blowtorch to make it adhere and finally a wax to fix the colours in place.
‘You can use any colours you want, even a bright pink if you like it, but most stick to the traditional colours. I have used a soft red on the poppy on the lamp post, for example.’
Finally, on September 8, the statue was ready to be unveiled to its public.
'It felt very strange, handing it over,’ Emma says. ‘But I went over the night before to give it a final polish and it just felt like it had always been there. It’s a beautiful, peaceful square. There’s so much to it I think people can spend hours finding new things, children can do rubbings, there’s an augmented reality app people can download via a QR code; go along on a wet day and watch the dog pee on the lamp post...’