One of my jobs as an Art UK Volunteer Photographer was to research and photograph Gan Canny, a large-scale sculpture by Ray Lonsdale, which was installed in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, in 2022.
I've been a fan of Ray Lonsdale's work since 2016, when he produced an amazing statue in Seaham, County Durham – Eleven-O-One, popularly known as 'Tommy'.
I got in touch with Ray as part of my research into the importance of public art to collective memory and community cohesion – I was a (very!) mature student. He was more than willing to let me interview him.
He was engaged by Sunderland City Council to produce three pieces to reflect the heavy industrial past of Sunderland – the closure of Vaux Brewery and of the shipyards. They were to be installed on the riverside redevelopment site. As far as I can tell, Ray started preparatory work on the project in 2014.
I think it is fair to say that when they were commissioned, the location for the pieces was still very much in the air – all that was known was that one piece was to be located near the site of Vaux Brewery, and the other two would be somewhere on the proposed development of the sites of the former shipyards.
The Vaux piece was to be of two horses pulling the brewery dray, with the driver sitting at the reins, and his assistant standing beside them. He said it was the most complex thing he had ever done – he knew nothing about horses and had to regard the work as four pieces, otherwise it would be too overwhelming.
Vaux Breweries were a major employer in Sunderland. The smell of hops spread all over town and the horse-drawn delivery wagons were a much-loved sight – unless you were stuck behind one making a delivery or shovelling up horse poo from the road (although it was very good for the roses)!
Vaux Brewery in 1947, barrels piled high and ready to go. The Vaux Site continues to develop and evolve but scenes like this live on @ the @SLibraries Local History Library @ ETR. Why not come and see them for yourself? pic.twitter.com/vFvyEBaGqd— Sunderland Libraries (@SLibraries) November 27, 2021
Vaux continued to use horses for local deliveries long after it was financially viable and used to compete in the heavy horse classes at prestigious horse shows, such as The Great Yorkshire Show and the Royal Windsor Horse Show. The last surviving Vaux horse died in October 2016. As a four-year-old in 1998, he was taken on by Beamish Museum when the brewery ceased production. He spent the rest of his working life giving carriage rides.
The sculpture was completed in the late summer of 2020, but it was not possible to install it at that time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On 12th October 2020, the sculpture was transported to a secret location – probably a Council depot somewhere. Finally, on 30th November 2021 it was taken to its new home in Keel Square, Sunderland.
I immediately got in touch with Ray and asked when it was going to be officially unveiled, and if I could attend for Art UK to photograph the unveiling. As it was to be at 9.15 in the morning and traffic could be difficult, there was a real risk of being delayed, and arriving well after the event, so Art UK agreed to pay for overnight accommodation in Sunderland. I have to confess that I was very concerned about the coronavirus risks at the time – we hadn't been away since the start of the pandemic.
After a lot of thought we worked out how we felt we could manage the situation safely – including buying waterproof under-pillowcases, taking our own pillowcases to put over them, wiping everything in the round with disinfectant wipes, and our own breakfast for the following morning, we booked a hotel near to the location.
As the time grew nearer, the coronavirus situation was getting worse. We were getting anxious. Sometime between 10th and 15th December, Sunderland Council decided to cancel the unveiling. Fortunately, we were able to cancel the hotel booking without penalty, but I was both disappointed and relieved.
I contacted Ray in January 2022 to ask if he had any news. His reply was puzzling, saying that Gan Canny had been installed, but was behind fencing until 'an additional safety inspection had been implemented'. A month later, Ray said he had done some modifications to satisfy a RoSPA inspection, but thought a low fence would have to be installed, which would be down to the Council. He didn't know when it would be unveiled, so I suggested to Art UK that it might be possible to go and shoot the piece anyway – it might even be possible to get some fencing panels removed to allow me access.
If you missed the exciting news this morning - #Sunderland's 'Gan Canny' has arrived. Celebrating the history and people of #Vaux Brewery. Brilliant work by @ray_lonsdale @SunderlandUK @SunderlandEcho @SunderlandUK @PMCallaghan @MaximBrewery pic.twitter.com/yPvFje7ZaR— Lonely Tower Film & Media (@LonelyTower) November 30, 2021
I was finally able to make my first visit in March 2022. A Council representative on site said the Heras fencing would be coming down in about three weeks, but a low railing had to be installed to try and discourage people from climbing on the piece. He was able to get permission from the company doing the work to let me take pictures of it happening, and to allow me to do the 'round the compass' shots of Gan Canny, without Heras fencing or low-level railings.
So, we booked accommodation and travelled up to Sunderland. We had a slight panic as to where we would leave the car – we have a Ford Transit camper van, and didn't think it would fit in the multi-storey car park. It turned out there was enough headroom inside, but a low height restriction board stopped us getting under. However, a lovely car park attendant helped me lift the board up, so we squeezed in (getting out was easy as the board was only above the entrance, not the exit!).
I photographed the sculpture at the time when the Heras fencing was removed, and the low-level railings installed, saying 'PLEASE DO NOT ENTER'. The guys doing the work were great and did their best to keep out of the way. I got my shots of the sculpture without the fencing, as well as with the low railings installed – probably a world scoop!
Gan Canny is an extremely detailed piece. You could look for hours and keep finding new details. As Ray had no experience of horses – they are not the sort of thing you find around heavy industrial sites (which is Ray's background) – he had got in touch with one of the last draymen at Vaux.
Every part of the tack was accurate, to the smallest detail such as the buckles on the bridles. The braking mechanism is perfect. There are crates of beer on the back of the dray, some of which have bottles in and some of which are empty. Barrels of beer sit at the rear.
There is a poo bucket and shovel hanging under the dray – and if you look closely there is horse poo in the bucket. The driver's shoelaces and the treads on his boots are shown in great detail.
And if you look really closely, there are sugar lumps on the hand of the groom.
Photographing the poo in the bucket was a nightmare! I had to poke my camera underneath the dray, and as I didn't have my flash trigger with me, could not get my camera with the 'big' flash gun in, and when I tried to use the pop-up flash on my camera, it would not fit under either and pushed the flash gun down, which switched it off!
If you are visiting the sculpture, I don't think it will be possible to see inside the bucket, and certainly to see the sugar lumps on the groom's hand without stepping over the low rails, which say 'DO NOT ENTER'!
A really lovely touch is the chains, which form part of the tack. Apparently, the retired driver who helped Ray get the details of both horse and tack accurate died recently. When the brewery closed, he was given the chains from the harness as a memento. His widow gave the chains to Ray to use on the piece.
The only inaccuracy has nothing to do with Ray. There is an information board on a wall adjacent to the sculpture.
Vaux brewery horses were at one time a common and popular site on the streets of Sunderland as they made deliveries to pubs around the city.
Gan Canny, created by local artist Ray Lonsdale, celebrates the city's brewing traditions, its workforce and the Vaux Brewery which operated from 1937 to 1999. Employing over 700 people during this period, the brewery is seen as an integral and much-loved part of Sunderland's rich heritage. The sculpture overlooks the transformation of the riverside – celebrating the city's past and looking to the future.
Gan Canny was commissioned by Sunderland City Council and officially unveiled by The Right Worshipful the Mayor of the City of Sunderland, Councillor Harry Trueman on 16 December 2021.
However, the unveiling was cancelled, and it has not, to my knowledge been officially unveiled – and in Vaux's day, Sunderland was not a city!
Helen Crute, Art UK Volunteer Photographer
Helen's determination to capture this new sculpture shows the tenacity of our team of hundreds of volunteers and the amount of meticulous planning that goes into recording every public sculpture on the Art UK website