Huge, earthy goddess landform artwork spurs public discourse
At one hearing, local evangelicals said Northumberlandia was promoting paganism over Christianity.
The Washington Post
CRAMLINGTON, England — The parking lot looks like any other in Britain receiving families for their "country-walk" fix, but the passage through the adjacent woodland feels just a little too directed to be entirely natural.
At the end of the path, the sylvan curtain is thrown back to reveal something strange and wondrous, a hill rising nine stories and with the profile of a face, carved from stone and earth and skinned in grass.
At first, the visage appears androgynous, but then you notice the rest of the figure stretching a quarter of a mile to your right: the breasts, the hips, a delicate hand open and pointing, outlined by slivers of pond water.
Meet the supine earth goddess named, variously, Northumberlandia, the Lady of the North or, to the locals in this coal-mining area, the Lady.
Officially opened by a woman — Princess Anne — in September, the hill has become an apparent hit, with 25,000 visitors in its first few weeks.
And yet as Northumberlandia was in the planning or building stages, it was assailed for various reasons, not least by a tabloid press mesmerized by its nearly 100-foot breasts. At one hearing, local evangelicals said it was promoting paganism over Christianity.
"They were worried about it being a pagan love god that would inspire the locals to make love on her," said Charles Jencks, creator of the landform.
"She's not a pagan god, and people aren't going to lose their moral compass if they walk all over her," he said. Jencks, 73, is an architectural critic and land artist who was born in Baltimore.
The figure is said to be the largest human form on the planet. From its summit, the face, you can see as you turn the distant North Sea, the city of Newcastle and, north, to the hill country of the Cheviots, whose undulations inspired the lady's curves and contours.
A Lilliputian feel
At times, there is a Lilliputian feel to hiking on her, as you traverse four miles of paths that delineate her legs, hips, hair and the rest.
The face, in particular, draws the eye. The nose forms a triangle of stone and turf, in cross section, and the enlarged forehead provides a sheltered seating area against the constant winds. The stone lips are full.
On his digital drawing board, Jencks exaggerated the features, knowing we are all wired to look at faces.
"What is the most interesting thing to people?" Jencks said. "Other people."
Critics aren't sure what to make of it. "It's quite difficult to take it seriously," said Tim Richardson, a London-based landscape historian and critic. "This massive woman you climb up."
The Lady is a joint project of the Blagdon Estate, a 10,000-acre family property that dates to 1698, and the Banks Group, an energy company. Banks is extracting coal from a surface mine next to the site.
The entities wanted to create an iconic feature that would enhance a part of the site, given its visibility near a major highway and rail line, and they shared its $5 million cost.
The female figure was formed over two years by the miners and their huge earth-moving machines using 1.5 million metric tons of clay, soil and rock excavated from the mine site. Jencks made visits to check on progress and approve changes. The Lady, leased for 99 years to a charity named the Land Trust, draws her multisyllabic name from the county in which she sits, Northumberland.
The Blagdon Estate's director, Bob Downer, sees the Lady as a gesture of environmental stewardship to the local people. Jencks also sees her as a gateway north to the Cheviot Hills and beyond, to Scotland. And like all his work, she is filled with cosmic symbolism.
Rugged coal corner
If Gulliver was tethered to the ground by his tiny captors, Northumberlandia seems to be coming out of the earth. Indeed, the sideways orientation of the hip suggests she is dancing.
She inhabits a rugged corner of northeastern England, whose rich coal seams fueled the Industrial Revolution.
From atop her windblown face, Downer surveys the various aspects. "It's just a view you can't get anywhere else," he said.
Other landforms that seek to speak to the cosmos exist from the time of the ancient Britons, and Northumberlandia shares that terrestrial DNA.
The most famous primal solar instrument is Stonehenge, but Jencks also notes that there are six large figures of white horses in England, formed by revealing the underlying chalk in the hills on which they were drawn.
Jencks is known in Britain for his collaboration with his wife, Maggie Keswick, in creating a series of high-design cancer centers. In a relaxed, bright and aesthetic setting, patients and their families have a place to get advice or simply to talk with other patients outside the drab corridors of the treatment hospitals.
The first center opened in 1996, the year after Keswick, a garden designer and historian, died from breast cancer at age 54.
Jencks persuaded leading international architects to design subsequent centers, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers.
But in the design world, Jencks was known first as an architectural critic who assailed modern architecture and then for his work as a land artist.
Perhaps his best-known project is the Garden of Cosmic Speculation that Keswick and Jencks developed at Portrack House, Keswick's family home in southwestern Scotland.
Jencks notes that humans have been "speculating on cosmic events and existence for at least 80,000 years." But only in recent decades have we come to understand the science of its origins and workings. This has led to a shift in our consciousness that he explores in his work.
"We are living in a new paradigm. We now know the universe back to the beginning; we know so many things that upset the modernist Newtonian worldview," he said. Jencks and other contemporary artists are finding inspiration in the cosmic patterns of a universe in constant metamorphosis.
While the old sciences "were linear, deterministic and relatively simple," Jencks said, the new cosmic age brings a caldron of fractals, spirals, soliton waves and other shapes. He sees their effects everywhere: in the chaotic dance of a hurricane, the stormy Great Red Spot of Jupiter, a draining bathtub or the nerve impulses of our brains.
Horticulture as art
Katie Campbell, a landscape historian based in London, said this newfound scientific knowledge of the cosmos is not yet part of the public's consciousness, and she wonders whether observers of Jencks' work will get it.
"Half of me thinks it's pretentious bull, and half of me thinks, how intriguing, and it's provocative," Campbell said, adding, however, "that we are talking about horticulture as a contemporary art form is pretty fabulous."
Campbell said she found Jencks' writings pompous, but when she heard him lecture, her view changed. "He's not arrogant. He's sweet and naive and earnest," she said. "It makes one feel less antagonistic toward him."
As hikers walk around the Lady, much of the work reads as a series of winding paths past contoured mounds and spirals. "Fifty percent of the time, you're not supposed to know it's a woman," Jencks said.
As the anthropomorphism fades, certain details come to the fore, such as the way the shaggy grass blows in the wind. Jencks has said his work is best experienced early or late in the day, when long shadows accentuate the features.
The figure provides a series of resting and viewing platforms, the uppermost on the forehead. From here, there is a view of the open cast mine, with its evident coal seams, several huge dump trucks (rendered toy-size) and the storage yard.
The waste from coal mining, slag, caused the tabloid press to dub Northumberlandia "Slag Alice," a play on an unflattering, fictitious character here named Slack Alice.
The name makes Downer bristle. "The local people are mightily offended when the popular press comes up with names like this."
At his side is Katie Perkin, a spokeswoman for Banks. "People in Cramlington call it the Lady, their Lady, and there's a real sense of ownership but also a real sense of affection," she said.
Jencks seems sanguine about the digs. "Public art has to go through that crucible. I think she's strong enough to take anything we throw at her."