he toads hopped in first. Then the moths fluttered past. And now it’s the turn of the puffins to parade. Larkin with Toads was then Hull’s largest-ever public art project, back in the summer of 2010, when the city commemorated the 25th anniversary of the death of the writer Philip Larkin. Forty giant – and very colourful – sculptures of toads formed a trail around the city, marking places which had influenced or had some sort of impact on the poet, most of whose career was spent at the University of Hull, and who had written about the creatures in his works.
At first the public were rather bemused – but it seemed that this amphibious assault actually changed perceptions about the value of art in public places, and it made quite an impact on both the economy and the quality of life for the locals. It certainly raised a lot of smiles.
And the moths? Well, they were all part of a major commemoration of the life and puzzling disappearance of Hull’s own Amy Johnson, many of whose daredevil flights were taken in her Gypsy Moth. She died in 1941 after becoming the first woman to fly solo (in a De Havilland Moth) from London to Australia. Just like the toads, moths appeared everywhere. And they both live on, with many remaining where they were originally placed and others auctioned off and moved to new locations. Some are in private homes and gardens, and others are on roads and premises in the area, where they have been relocated by new owners or sponsors.
The puffins are the latest manifestation of this heart-warming Yorkshire daftness. There will be 42 of them in total, each standing at about a metre and a half tall, in locations all the way down the coastline, from Flamborough Head to Spurn Point. Key funders are the Yorkshire Coast Bid and Visit East Yorkshire, with East Riding Council as the project partner. When Puffins Galore! finally wings away in late autumn, these unique sculptures will either remain on their plinths, or (once again) go under the auctioneer’s hammer. What they fetch, and the money raised from the sponsors, will be divided between four key charities – Hornsea Inshore Rescue, the RNLI, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. To sponsor each of the 42 puffins, dozens of local businesses and organisations have paid just under £4,000, so that’s already around £165,900 in the fund-raising pot. Some sculptures have sold for £10,000 – and more.
As with so many other great ideas and good intentions, Puffins Galore! already building up momentum when Covid hit, and everything had to be put on hold. Then there was another hitch when the puffin structures couldn’t be delivered on time. They were being made in Poland, and the factory which had promised delivery had to slow down manufacture because many of their workers came from Ukraine, and these loyal men rightly decided that fighting in a war for their homeland took precedence over artistic endeavour.
“Who on earth could moan about that?” says Rick Welton, director of Puffins Galore! “It was a tiny glitch for us, and their patriotism does them great credit. But the puffins finally turned up, as we knew that they would, and our artists set to work.”
The “Paint a Puffin” proposal was made public many months ago and, as with the toads and the moths, it immediately generated interest in the artistic community – not just in Yorkshire but worldwide, with hundreds of ideas submitted. Those had to be whittled down to just under 80 which were considered viable, relevant – and eye-catching – and then down to the final 40-plus. The brief for the artists centred on three themes – endangered wildlife of the coast and the seas; the global warming crisis and the growth of green energy; and people and stories of the north-east coast.
“You could hardly call that a narrow selection”, says Rick with a laugh. “The proposals we received were, and are, astonishing in both their imagination and diversity. We know that people are going to love them, and for so many reasons. They inform, they provoke discussion, they give information, and visitors to the coast will, we are sure, fall in love with them.”
Each will be mounted on an environmentally friendly plinth made of old wooden railway sleepers, and each will have a plaque, giving brief information of its theme, the artist who created it, and the sponsor, and there will also be an electronic app to access, where further details can be found. They’ll be located both on the coast, and just inland, at places which have a connection with and to the sea. Among the several varied sites, Hull will have seven penguins, Hornsea six, Withernsea five and Beverley three, while Bempton and Patrington will both be home to one each. And among the sponsors are green energy companies, firms of solicitors and jewellers, builders and colleges and a local bookseller, who supported the artist Jemma Brown because she decided to reference many of the region’s noted authors and their stories – everyone from Ted Hughes and Winifred Holtby to Andrew Marvell.
Today sees the great reveal of Puffins Galore! which will run until the end of October. Ironically, it opens just as the birds themselves will be thinking about flying off from their Bempton nests to winter in the rather less appealing cold Atlantic.
One of the great outcomes of the whole project has been that while some of the 38 artists (there are a couple who are each creating a pair of puffins) have chosen to work on their personal pieces in their own studios around the UK, quite a few opted to work in the Puffins Galore! makeshift studio/warehouse at the Boathouse in Hull, a large space (once the HQ of a radio station) which was loaned by property developers Rachel and James Murray. That meant artists who knew and admired the work of their colleagues finally got to meet them in person, and to discuss their ideas and proposals.
Three who have formed and cemented friendships are Emma Garness, Katy Cobb and Hannah Van Green. Each drew inspiration from very different sources, ranging from nightlife in Beverley – of the moon, stars, owl and bat variety – to the value and importance of natural materials like kelp in our seas, and the flamboyant fairground, barge and funfair signwriting. Hannah says: “I am passionate about the environment, and my own decision was to work from a very muted palette – natural colours and an ‘under the sea’ feel.
“I think that we were all a little surprised how our original ideas actually made us think a lot about how we were going to present something new on a 3D form, whereas most of us usually work on a flat surface. Then there was all the research that we did, which was actually a great pleasure because there’s nothing quite like discovering things that you really didn’t know about, or with which you were unfamiliar. Seeing how my fellow artists work is also fascinating. I’ve loved being involved. And a big part of this project is that each of the puffins is very tactile. They are meant to be stroked and touched – each is coated in a highly protective varnish. The more selfies they attract, the happier we will all be!”
There is also a sense of continuity as one of the puffins will be placed at Spurn Point and retell the story of how Amy Johnson crash-landed on the spit on one of her earlier flights. “We’ve had a few very drab years but now visitors to East Yorkshire are going to discover a lot of colour, perhaps in some unexpected places. They’ll find ideas and, we all hope, some good old-fashioned fun. Art that entertains and also informs,” adds Rick.
Now in his mid-seventies, has he got something new up his sleeve to entertain outdoor art lovers? “Well,” he admits, “there is a little idea at the back of my mind, something that might surprise a few people. The animal? Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it! Just wait and see…”