Gormley’s iron men are getting a Liberal neighbour

William Gladstone will scrutinise his boyhood surroundings, where he bathed on the beach now dotted with the sculptor’s large men

Antony Gormley’s famous iron men on the beach at Crosby are to be joined by another piece of metal sculpture, safely on dry land.

Less than a mile from the hundred huge figures, which were saved from being shipped elsewhere six years ago, an over-lifesize bronze bust of William Gladstone will be unveiled next month.

Standing on an eight foot stone column, the piece shows “every nook and cranny” of the Liberal Prime Minister’s craggy face, looking “as if he was always in a rush” according to sculptor Tom Murphy whose past subjects include John Lennon and Dixie Dean. The ‘ Grand Old Man’ had plenty to think about, as the only person ever to serve as Prime Minister four times and a statesman who made a long transition from right-wing Tory to radical Liberal.

His early views were drawn from his time in Seaforth, the once fashionable suburb north of Liverpool where his father Sir John Gladstone bought 100 acres of land in 1813 to get his young family out of the city’s smoke. Sir John was a wealthy grain merchant who acquired sugar plantations in Jamaica and Guyana and fought for the compensation of slave-owners; William Gladstone’s maiden speech in the Commons in 1831 included a defence of their interests.

This reflected the relative splendour of the family mansion Seaforth House, which gave its name (taken from Scottish relatives) to the suburb that grew around it and was listed in the mid-19th century Views of the Seats , Mansions, Castle etc of Nobility and Gentlemen. Gladstone was popular at Eton for bringing pineapples from his father’s conservatory; he also complained that the public school’s rooms were not as clean as those at home on Merseyside and asked for the tea to be sent from the north to Slough because the school’s contained sawdust.

The mansion was demolished in 1881 and the same fate has befallen St Thomas’s church where Gladstone learned his deep religious convictions, to such an extent that he hoped at one stage that his father, who had it built, would bequeath it to him. His bronze gaze will look out instead from outside Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic church, following its unveiling by a modern politician with a strong and independent mind, Frank Field the Labour MP for Birkenhead. Liberal luminaries may be expected; possibly the deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the former victor of the 1981 Crosby by-election, Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams of Crosby.

It should also be more to the taste of local Liberal Democrat Jack Colbert who called last year for the Gormley men to be scrapped to save maintenance costs.

Seaforth owes the bust to a retired teacher and graduate of Liverpool university Brenda Murray, now 89 and a keen local historian who was born nearby and has campaigned vigorously for local economic revival. Impressed by the visitor pulling power of Another Place, as Gormley’s iron men are officially known, she used local history to galvanise neighbours in support of the idea.

Talks, school competitions and other fundraisers were finally topped up by a £10,000 Heritage Lottery Fund to raise the £25,000 needed, and Murray was awarded a British Empire Medal in the New Year honours. She is looking forward to a grand do at noon on Saturday 23 February and says:

For a long time I’ve worked to create interest in Seaforth and its links with Gladstone, with lectures and talks but I felt something more spectacular was needed to mark his great achievements.

Sculptor Murphy, who has a studio at Canning Street in central Liverpool, tells the Crosby Herald:

I made a cardboard cutout for a sense of scale and went from there. Gladstone is 10 percent bigger than he would be normally, because when you go outside in the open statues sink in comparison to when they are in rooms. I had to do every nook and cranny in his face after studying all of the photographs of him. He looks as if he is always in a rush and he has a ‘Beethoven-ish’ type of face.

Merseyside has more statues of its heroes than anywhere outside of London because we like to celebrate the lives of our famous people here. When we miss someone we want them back and that’s what we are doing here with Gladstone.

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