Spiral Nebula outside the Herschel Building, off Haymarket Lane, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Spiral Nebula, Outside the Herschel Building, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne


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Statutory Address:
Spiral Nebula, Outside the Herschel Building, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Newcastle upon Tyne (Metropolitan Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Sculpture, 1962 by Geoffrey Clarke, commissioned by Sir Basil Spence to stand outside his Herschel Building for the Physics Department of the University of Newcastle (at that time King's College, University of Durham, becoming the University of Newcastle in 1963).

Reasons for Designation

Spiral Nebula of 1962 by Geoffrey Clarke, commissioned by Sir Basil Spence to stand outside his Herschel Building, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Artist: Geoffrey Clarke is a notable post-war sculptor who excelled at the Royal College of Art, London, exhibiting at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the Venice Biennale of 1952, before sealing his reputation with his commissions for the high altar cross and candlesticks, a vast, suspended crown of thorns, and three nave windows at the new Coventry Cathedral;

* Aesthetic quality: a large, bold sculpture, whose modern appearance brings to mind an abstracted receiving dish, electrical coil, and antenna, the use of textured and pegged aluminium panels imbuing a hand-crafted quality and a humanity to this man-made structure apparently communing with outer space;

* Construction: Clarke pioneered a modern variation of the ‘lost wax’ method using shaped polystyrene moulds set in sand, which vaporised upon the casting of molten aluminium, a metal increasingly favoured by a number of post-war sculptors;

* Historic interest: the commission was one of a number from Sir Basil Spence with whom Clarke first worked at Spence’s Coventry Cathedral;

* Contribution to the public realm: as a good example of the commissioning of public artworks in the realm of expanding universities in the post-war era, here introducing both aesthetic pleasure and a visual indicator of the human endeavour of the physicists within the adjacent contemporary building at a time when interest in space was in the ascendant.


The Spiral Nebula, also known as the Swirling Nebula, was designed by the sculptor Geoffrey Clarke in 1962. It was commissioned by the architect, Sir Basil Spence, for the grounds of the Herschel Building (1957-62) which he designed for the Physics Department of King's College, University of Durham, later in 1963 to become the University of Newcastle. Spence worked collaboratively with Clarke on a number of occasions, notably Coventry Cathedral and Newcastle Civic Centre, their modernist styles complimenting each other. The sculpture’s title particularly brings to mind the growing interest in space amongst physicists; Britain’s first satellite, Ariel 1, was launched in 1962.

The sculpture has a steel armature with cast aluminium panels. Rather than the traditional method of modelling in clay and casting bronze or iron, in 1958 had Clarke pioneered a more rapid and direct technique using polystyrene and turned to using aluminium. He carved the polystyrene with a heated instrument and then packed it into fine sand in the small studio foundry he had set up in a barn beside his Suffolk home. When the molten aluminium was poured in the polystyrene vaporised and the aluminium hardened to take the same shape in a modern variation of the ‘lost wax’ method.

When the sculpture was unveiled it caused a dispute between Clarke and Spence as the latter thought that its waxed finish distracted attention from the building. A month later the sculpture was flame-blasted and painted grey.

In 2012 the University of Newcastle initiated a conservation plan for the sculpture, which was then in a deteriorating condition. Geoffrey Clarke was informed of the conservation plan with the outcome that the restoration was undertaken by his son, Jonathan. Jonathan, also a sculptor, had been apprenticed from the age of 16 in his father’s studio. He worked on the restoration with Andrew Pawsey, son of Clarke’s original assistant who helped him create Spiral Nebula in 1962. The sculpture was sandblasted, unblocking drainage holes and removing the grey paint. 12 missing aluminium panels were recast and loose panels re-secured. The sculpture was then finished with micaceous iron oxide and a microcrystalline wax, returning its appearance to that originally intended by Geoffrey Clarke. The conservation was completed in late December 2012.

Geoffrey Clarke (1924-2014) was born in Darley Dale, Derbyshire. He entered the Royal College of Art, London, in 1948 after studying at three northern art schools and serving in the RAF. A stained glass piece made in his first year won a Silver Medal, the only time a silver medal has been awarded to a first year student. He represented the RCA at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and in 1952 exhibited at the Venice Biennale with other ‘Young British Sculptors’, including Reg Butler and Lynn Chadwick. By this time he was working on a series of commissions for the new Coventry Cathedral, designed by Basil Spence. These included three of the cathedral’s 10 nave windows, the cross and candlesticks for the high altar, and a vast aluminium crown of thorns. He undertook a large and diverse series of commissions during the 1950s, though his work was less sought after as the 1960s progressed. He was made a Royal Academician in 1975. Examples of his work are held in the collections of the Tate Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum.


Sculpture, 1962 by Geoffrey Clarke, commissioned by Sir Basil Spence to stand outside his Herschel Building for the Physics Department of the University of Newcastle (at that time King's College, University of Durham, becoming the University of Newcastle in 1963).

MATERIALS: steel armature with cast aluminium panels. Painted with micaceous iron oxide and microcrystalline wax during the 2012 restoration.

PLAN: a free-standing sculpture with a vertically-set shield and coil with a tall spire standing on a narrow, rectangular platform or bench.

DESCRIPTION: the sculpture stands on the NW side of the Herschel Building and is set at an angle to the building. It is a large, abstract design, though clearly symbolic of the scientific advances in the 1960s. The main section is set on a narrow, rectangular bench or platform standing around 1.2 metres high on rectangular legs. The bench has an angular appearance being covered in textured, cast-aluminium panels with projecting pegs or dowels. The shape of the main section is based on some form of electrical equipment or receiving dish held by a clamp with V-shaped base which stands at the N end of the bench. The clamp is covered in small, pegged, cast aluminium panels, giving the effect of wooden slats. One side of the main section is made of a large, loosely-wound coil covered in angular, cast aluminium panels. The other side is shaped like a roughly circular shield or receiving dish of cast aluminium with raised seams, which cups the coil. Two, roughly horizontal, circular steel tubes emerge out of the aluminium panels to flank the spiral like stripped wires or antennae. The whole is topped by a tall spire or antenna rising approximately 4 metres. The lower half is covered by small, cast-aluminium panels from which a circular steel tube emerges.


Books and journals
Usherwood, P, Beach, J, Morris, C, Public Sculpture of North-East England, (2000), 142-143
A Tribute to Geoffrey Clarke RA, accessed 28/06/2016 from https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/a-tribute-to-geoffrey-clarke
Geoffrey Clarke – obituary , accessed 28/06/2016 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11223942/Geoffrey-Clarke-obituary.html
Geoffrey Clarke biography , accessed 28/06/2016 from http://geoffreyclarke.info/biography
Geoffrey Clarke obituary , accessed 28/06/2016 from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/06/geoffrey-clarke
Marsh Award 2013 PMSA, accessed 28/06/2016 from http://www.pmsa.org.uk/marsh-award/marsh-award-2013/
Marsh Christian Trust, Spiral Nebula, accessed 28/06/2016 from http://www.marshchristiantrust.org/default.asp?MARK-SEARCH=YES&SEARCH-ID=s1&V-ITEM-ID=1056
Interpretation Boards for the Spiral Nebula in the Herschel Building


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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