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Giant sculpture is towed from Sussex to Dundee to make a splash as new aquatic Angel of the North

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There is a magical moment — just as his 36-metre, 22-tonne whale hangs from a crane, shimmering in the sun and almost drifting on the breeze — that it all must feel worth it to artist Lee Simmons.

Not just the 14-hour days, the weekends working in his studio and the endless hours spent on maths calculations, metalwork, design and engineering.

But also the five months spent burnishing two kilometres of marine-grade tubular stainless steel. Not to mention the full year wrestling with the marine and port authorities and working out the logistics to ‘sail’ his whale up the coast to its final resting point outside the Victoria & Albert Museum on the rejuvenated Dundee waterfront.

Close up, the finish is extraordinary — sleek and cool to the touch. Just gazing up at the exquisite lines, elegant swoop and extended pectoral fin is somehow both uplifting and strangely calming. When installed in its new home next week, the £1 million work will appear suspended as if in flight — actually on three fine columns — swooping towards the Tay Estuary.

For now, though, it is a wrestle of slings, hooks, high-viz jackets and a 500-tonne crane — all watched by dozens of staff from Littlehampton Welding Limited, West Sussex, who built it to Lee’s design and, after months of burnishing, polishing and welding, are keen to wave her off.

Currently the work is a wrestle of slings, hooks, high-viz jackets and a 500-tonne crane — all watched by dozens of staff from Littlehampton Welding Limited, West Sussex, who built it to artist Lee Simmons' design

 Currently the work is a wrestle of slings, hooks, high-viz jackets and a 500-tonne crane — all watched by dozens of staff from Littlehampton Welding Limited, West Sussex, who built it to artist Lee Simmons’ design

How it will look: When installed in its new home next week, the £1 million work will appear suspended as if in flight — actually on three fine columns — swooping towards the Tay Estuary

How it will look: When installed in its new home next week, the £1 million work will appear suspended as if in flight — actually on three fine columns — swooping towards the Tay Estuary

Inspiration: He chose a humpback because of its distinctive shape, watched endless YouTube videos to see how it moved, swam and carried itself in the water — then almost doubled its size from the real thing

Inspiration: He chose a humpback because of its distinctive shape, watched endless YouTube videos to see how it moved, swam and carried itself in the water — then almost doubled its size from the real thing

It all started 18 months ago when Lee, 33, won a design competition run by Dundee City Council that called for a whale-themed canopy to grace the waterfront and commemorate the city’s historical links with the whaling industry. 

He chose a humpback because of its distinctive shape, watched endless YouTube videos to see how it moved, swam and carried itself in the water — then almost doubled its size from the real thing: female humpback whales usually stretch to about 16 metres, while males are slightly smaller.

The idea was that Lee’s Tay Whale would not just look nice, celebrate the natural world and link to Dundee’s past, but also highlight some of the myriad environmental concerns of our oceans. 

The creation is a masterpiece. A tour de force of traditional craft, digital fabrication and cutting-edge structural engineering — all celebrating the skills and talent of our nation.

No wonder he looks so shattered today. He hasn’t slept properly for weeks and he hasn’t had a holiday with gorgeous wife Daniella and their two young children for three years. 

As he puts it himself, he is ‘massively obsessive’, a ‘stickler for details’, often working through the night in his studio and is not the sort to cut even the teeniest corner, however tempting. Such as the ‘shipping issue’. 

Final voyage: The Tay Whale is hoisted onto the barge for the trip to Dundee. The creation is a masterpiece, writes Jane Fryer. A tour de force of traditional craft, digital fabrication and cutting-edge structural engineering

Final voyage: The Tay Whale is hoisted onto the barge for the trip to Dundee. The creation is a masterpiece, writes Jane Fryer. A tour de force of traditional craft, digital fabrication and cutting-edge structural engineering

The craftsman adds final touches in the workshop. As Lee puts it himself, he is ‘massively obsessive’, a ‘stickler for details’, often working through the night in his studio and is not the sort to cut even the teeniest corner, however tempting

The craftsman adds final touches in the workshop. As Lee puts it himself, he is ‘massively obsessive’, a ‘stickler for details’, often working through the night in his studio and is not the sort to cut even the teeniest corner, however tempting

Lee inside his creation. It all started 18 months ago when he won a design competition run by Dundee City Council that called for a whale-themed canopy to grace the waterfront and commemorate the city’s historical links with the whaling industry

Lee inside his creation. It all started 18 months ago when he won a design competition run by Dundee City Council that called for a whale-themed canopy to grace the waterfront and commemorate the city’s historical links with the whaling industry

‘It could have been packed up in bits and put on a lorry,’ he says. ‘But you’d have ended up with bolted connections, not welded in continuous pieces — and lost some of the elegance.’

So instead, last night, after being hoisted on to an enormous barge, Lee’s whale set sail on a four-day journey. Up the Channel, into the North Sea, hugging the coastline round Norfolk, past Whitby and, come Saturday, into the Tay Estuary.

Lee wasn’t always quite as focused. He grew up in Hertfordshire, the son of a builder. At school, he was ‘a bit of a tearaway’ only finding his niche after an art teacher who was also a qualified jeweller let him play around with bits of silver. ‘Finally, when I was 16, the penny dropped!’

He did a BA in metalwork and jewellery at Sheffield University and from there went to the Royal College of Art. The last jewellery he designed was Daniella’s wedding ring. They have been together since school and married three years ago. 

Technicians add the finishing touches to the whale. The idea was that Lee’s Tay Whale would not just look nice, celebrate the natural world and link to Dundee’s past, but also highlight some of the myriad environmental concerns of our oceans.

Technicians add the finishing touches to the whale. The idea was that Lee’s Tay Whale would not just look nice, celebrate the natural world and link to Dundee’s past, but also highlight some of the myriad environmental concerns of our oceans.

Lee did a BA in metalwork and jewellery at Sheffield University and from there went to the Royal College of Art. The last jewellery he designed was his wife Daniella’s wedding ring

Lee did a BA in metalwork and jewellery at Sheffield University and from there went to the Royal College of Art. The last jewellery he designed was his wife Daniella’s wedding ring

After being hoisted on to an enormous barge, Lee’s whale set sail on a four-day journey. Up the Channel, into the North Sea, hugging the coastline round Norfolk, past Whitby and, come Saturday, into the Tay Estuary

After being hoisted on to an enormous barge, Lee’s whale set sail on a four-day journey. Up the Channel, into the North Sea, hugging the coastline round Norfolk, past Whitby and, come Saturday, into the Tay Estuary

Since graduating, he has moved on to bigger commissions, including the Wall of Fame at the revamped London Palladium for Andrew Lloyd Webber and his wife, Madeleine.

This, however, is his most complicated assignment, yet. Because as well as the whale canopy, Lee has designed the 650 sq m interactive digital ‘play park’ — complete with recordings of male whale song (females can’t sing) that sits beneath it. ‘There are over 2,500 parts of the whale!’ he says, gritty-eyed and unshaven as he looks up at his creation.

‘It becomes your baby. Every little tube, every connection. The pectoral fin! I obsessed about the transition between that and the body! Now it’s out there in the world for everyone to enjoy.’

As we watch, it is finally time for farewell and the whale swings out of the yard, over the fence, bobs gently in the breeze as if in a current, before being lowered gently onto the barge to begin its epic voyage north.



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