Since its installation into Sunderland’s regenerated Keel Square, Gan Canny has quickly won the affection of the city, a proud reminder of a bygone age when dray horses shuttled Vaux ale around the riverside brewery site.
And as Riverside Sunderland rapidly transforms, two more stunning tributes to the city’s distinguished past will stand among contemporary developments, each carefully crafted by the same man behind Gan Canny, Ray Lonsdale.
“The reception that Gan Canny has had since it was installed has been really humbling for me,” says Ray, who spent 14 months creating the stunning piece, and a further 19 months for the other two sculptures, which will also find their home close to the river.
“It’s the most daunting part of creating artwork like this, when it’s time for its unveiling. Gan Canny was put in place during the pandemic, so we didn’t do a public reveal, but I am obviously delighted with the reaction since it appeared. I have had countless messages from people saying how it makes them feel, and it means a lot. And I am looking forward to seeing what people think of the other two pieces when the time comes for us to get them into position too. They’re designed to unlock a sense of optimism for the future, but to make people feel proud too – of the heritage of the city.”
Proud is a word that has repeatedly been played back since Gan Canny’s installation. Most have talked of how proud the piece makes them of the city’s past, but also how hopeful they are for the future, as Sunderland embraces the transformation of its city centre and looks forward to new industries continuing to arrive and grow in and around the riverside site.
And Ray hopes the other pieces he has created – commissioned on behalf of Sunderland City Council – will invoke a similar sentiment as his first.
“It’s right and important that we celebrate the past, but that we do so with a focus on the future too. It’s easy to look back at what we had, but Gan Canny, and the two other pieces, will stand in a part of the city that is quickly transforming, so while they give a nod to the past this is not about dwelling on it,” says Ray, whose family come from Sunderland.
Like Gan Canny, Ray’s two other pieces will be made from corten steel. Both recall the city’s shipbuilding heritage and will be placed to overlook the River Wear, after work concludes on a number of significant new developments that are underway on the north and south side of the river.
The second piece is a large sculpture with two shipyard workers having their lunch together and captures the mood of people in the city as the industry came to the end of its life. The final piece, Launch Day, features a little girl sat with her grandfather overlooking the River Wear, hearing stories of what it was like to work in the shipyards.
“There remains so much pride in Sunderland about the city’s industrious past and the hardworking people who fuelled it, and I think that’s why these pieces seem to resonate. People connect to the emotion of losing industries, but as the city changes, they can do so with a sense of pride rather than loss, as – with the transforming landscape – comes new hope.”
The pieces – which are currently in storage – will be positioned along the riverside, creating a community focal point and place for the residents, workers and visitors, who will flock to Riverside Sunderland for years to come, to reflect on how the place has changed.
A layer of oxide will form over the pieces when their surfaces are exposed to the elements, producing a ‘rust-like’ coating that helps them blend into the environment and gives a sense of age.
“Just like Gan Canny the pieces should feel like they slot seamlessly into the landscape. That they sit well alongside the new buildings that are taking shape. The blend of old and new, past and future, are really what Riverside Sunderland is about, so seeing the pieces in place will feel like a symbol of a city that can look back fondly at its past, as well as forward to its future.”
Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said he believes the two additional pieces will be just as well received as Gan Canny.
“Gan Canny immediately resonated with the public and it’s amazing how the piece blends with the landscape, having only been in place a matter of months. Ray’s wonderful additional pieces will, no doubt, have the same impact with residents and visitors to the city, who – through the work – will learn more about the rich history of this industrious city.”