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Spirit of Liverpool

The original Spirit of Liverpool sculpture, which is now in storage.

The statue of the Spirit of Liverpool was located on top of the Walker Art Gallery on William Brown Street for more than a century from 1877. It had to be removed in 1993 as the marble had deteriorated so badly that the sculpture was no longer structurally safe. It was a possibility that large chunks might fall off and through the glass dome into the entrance foyer of the Walker Art Gallery. 

A replica Spirit of Liverpool was carved from a 41 ton piece of Chinese marble in 1993-1994. The replica was put back in place of the original on the roof of the Walker Art Gallery and is still sitting proudly above the streets of her city today.

The original sculpture was conserved and is now safely kept under cover in a secure store. The statue had to be installed in the building before the construction work was finished, as once the doors were fitted there was no way the huge sculpture would be able to get in.

Accession number WAG 9509

A personification of Liverpool

The sculptor who carved the Spirit of Liverpool in the 1870s, John Warrington Wood, created an allegorical statue in which there are many symbols representing the city of Liverpool in the late 19th century.

Liverpool is portrayed as a gigantic royal woman wearing a crown and a laurel wreath on her head. She is sitting on a bale of cotton that portrays Liverpool’s trade and industry. A Liver bird, a fictional bird that is a symbol of Liverpool, is sitting by her left arm and in her left hand she is holding a steamship propeller. In her right hand she is holding a trident. Both the trident and the propeller are symbols of domination over the sea. At her feet is a painter’s palette, a compass and a setsquare.

This combination of objects was meant to symbolise that the arts find their support from trade and industry. This is not an unusual idea to be put forward in the late 19th century, especially by wealthy businessmen who supported grand building and artistic projects in Liverpool at this time.

The Walker Art Gallery photographed in about 1975 with the Spirit of Liverpool on the roof

Making and installing the original sculpture

It is hard to believe that these patrons of the arts in the late 19th century commissioned sculpture that was to be displayed outdoors in the city, such as the Spirit of Liverpool, in marble. They must have been surrounded by evidence of the harmful effects of atmospheric pollution in England on new sculpture.

When white marble is exposed to heavy industrial pollution it forms a thick black crust on the surface, which not only changes the colour of the sculpture but also causes major damage to the detailed carving and the structure of the piece. However the patrons of the arts in the 19th century wanted to highlight the link between their newly commissioned sculpture and the great classical works of ancient Rome and Greece. The sculptures made from marble were also worth more financially.

It is for these reasons that when he commissioned the three major works of sculpture for the exterior of the Walker Art Gallery, Andrew Barclay Walker chose marble for the three works representing Liverpool, Michelangelo and Raphael. All three statues were all carved in the sculptor John Warrington Wood’s studio in Rome in the 1870s.

When it was finished the Liverpool statue weighed 12 tons and was too heavy to be transported on a wagon. The sculpture was moved in a crate on rollers through the streets of Rome from the studio to the train station. The short journey took four days. The three sculptures were shipped from Livorno in Italy to Liverpool and arrived in Liverpool on the 6 June 1877. The Spirit of Liverpool statue was put on public display at the entrance to the new gallery before it was hoisted onto the roof of the Gallery in the week of 16 July 1877. The lift took 3 days to complete and the gallery was officially opened by Edward Henry Stanley, the 15th Earl of Derby, on 6 September 1877.

The decision to conserve

The Spirit of Liverpool about to be removed from the roof of the Walker Art Gallery

From 1877 until 1992 the Spirit of Liverpool remained on the roof of the Walker Art Gallery exposed to the heavy industrial pollution of the late 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the harsh maritime climate the city has, due to its coastal location. No conservation work was undertaken on the sculpture during this time. In 1992 a condition report of the sculpture found that the marble had eroded to such a degree that it was in danger of falling apart. The condition of the sculpture made it dangerous to the people visiting the gallery below, as pieces of the sculpture could fall through the roof.

It was obvious that the statue had to be taken off the roof of the Walker Art Gallery. The installation of the statue in 1877 had required a “great hempen cable”, a huge quantity of scaffolding, more than 5,000 man hours and had taken three days. It was removed on Sunday 24 October 1993 in less than an hour using one huge crane and 15 experts.

The Spirit of Liverpool being hoisted from the roof of the Walker Art Gallery

A replica Spirit of Liverpool

It was decided that a replica sculpture should be made for the roof of the Walker. The replica should be as close to the original statue of the Spirit of Liverpool as she looked when she was first carved, before the damage from the environment had changed her appearance. There are photos the stature from the 1920s in which the sculpture is still in a good condition and all the details can be easily recognised.

The Spirit of Liverpool sculpture in the conservation studio. The right hand side has been remodelled using plasticine

Conservators used these photos and sculptors to recreate how the Spirit of Liverpool would have looked when she was first carved. To make this model the conservators coated the original sculpture with a resin to prevent any further damage to the fragile surface and then re-modelled the missing surface detail using white plasticine. It in most areas 2-3 mm of the original surface had disappeared and this now needed to be recreated using plasticine.

The original statue was carved from marble quarried in Italy. However it was decided to use Chinese marble to create the replica. A 41 ton block of marble was cut from a mountain in a quarry in China where four Chinese carvers worked in unison for nine months non-stop to recreate the sculpture. They worked from drawings and plans made form the plasticine reconstruction on the original.

The replica Spirit of Liverpool partially roughed-out in China

The sculpture itself only weighs 12 tons, but a block of new marble weighing 42 tons was needed for the creation of a replica Spirit of Liverpool. This is because the wastage on such a carving is very high, over 60%, and the basic design of the sculpture is a pyramid shape not a rectangle.

It had been agreed that the carving of the fine detail would take place in England. The Chinese sculptors left the raised arm of Spirit very thick to protect it during transportation. The sculpture was packed in a wooden crate in China and gifts of nuts and fruits were thrown in as a blessing for the newly made image. The sculpture was shipped to England where the final work to finishing the marble was undertaken. The metal trident and Liver bird were replaced with aluminium copies. The originals are brass but aluminium is more resistant to corrosion.

The replica was hoisted back onto the Walker Art Gallery. After the original sculpture had been conserved to halt any further deterioration of the marble, it was moved into storage. It is in a controlled environment, so that the statue will not deteriorate any further. It remains as a record of how the ravages of our environment can damage our heritage.

The completed replica of the Spirit of Liverpool before the replica statue was placed on the roof of the Walker Art Gallery


The book Liverpool Renewed by Edward Morris, John Larson and John Reddish is available from the online shop.