Watchman for the Morning (Hartlepool, John Atkin, 1989)

Hartlepool’s ‘Watchman for the Morning’ (also known as ‘The Watcher’) is a 1989 work by artist John Atkin. Like many of the works we write about (such as Adrian Kidd’s Equinox or Eddie Hawking’s Pregnant Torso), it’s had a storied existence and was moved from its intended location at Hartlepool Marina due to public reaction. It’s a bold and divisive piece, and John kindly agreed to tell me about it in a September 2020 interview, excerpts of which are published below.


Atkin studied at Cleveland College of Art and Leicester Polytechnic, but his career began in earnest when he was personally funded by Henry Moore to attend the Royal College of Art. Atkin had speculatively sent some of his sketches to the great sculptor, and was invited to Moore’s studios at Much Hadham to discuss them, leading to Moore recommending and funding him for a 3-year course from 1982-85.

John Atkin speaking to us from his studio in 2020.

Not long before the Watchman, Atkin had been working on a number of ‘heads’. These works were prompted in part by bereavement:

“At that time in the 1980s an awful lot of my family passed away. My mother and father died within two months of each other; I had aunts and uncles who died, and I remember going to one service and just being struck very much by that particular line – watchman for the morning [a biblical line from Psalms 130], and that implication of either disappearing into the dying of the light or it being some sort of re-emergence was something that dominated my work for many many years.”

Sketches and plans for the Watchman (courtesy of John Atkin)

Atkin also mentioned the influence of Camus in his head sculptures (“The Outsider, yes there is a lot of that”), and explained how the commission came about:

“The artwork was commissioned by Northern Arts; Peter Davies and Len Green were there at the time and were very supportive. In 1987/88 Northern Arts came to me and said there’s this commission and we’d like to put you forward to make a piece of sculpture for the Marina in Hartlepool.”

This was about the same time I had a studio space at Paton and Baldwin’s [an old wool factory in Darlington] and I started to work on a whole series of heads, and here was the very first opportunity for me to make something on a large scale for an outdoor location.”

For Atkin this was good timing. He had planned to go to Australia and saw this commission as a way to fund part of the trip.

Hartlepool Marina: the proposed site for the sculpture (photo from

The Process

The Watcher maquette was a life-cast of Atkin’s wife’s head. The surface was then modelled with bubble wrap and other materials to distort and texture it.

Maquettes for the Watchman (Courtesy of Art UK)

Art critic William Varley described Atkin’s works as having a “mechanomorphic” quality (something natural which has mechanical features or qualities):

“It was all based on heavy industry, shipbuilding obviously as well. I wanted this image of people from the region being imprinted by a machine-led process. This is why it was modelled with materials which were the result of production.”

An early version of the Watchman

The final piece was made from a galvanised steel armature, which was then surrounded by glass-reinforced concrete for durability. Materials such as Expamet (expanded metal), chicken wire, bubble wrap and corrugated card were used to texture the surface.

“The work you’ll love to hate”

Although initially sited at Hartlepool Marina, public opinion forced a hasty rethink.

Newspapers spoke of opposition to the sculpture, which was moved to Sir William Gray House. It was hoped that this would be a temporary move before a permanent installation at the Marina, but that was not to be:

“I think it was at the Marina for a very short time, but then it got moved to Gray’s very, very quickly. There was a lot of adverse publicity about it, like people wanting to throw it into the harbour because they didn’t like it. I think that they moved it just to save it.”

Press cuttings provided by the artist

Contemporary newspaper clippings (such as the one shown above) are testimony to the divisive reception his work received, but Atkin was unfazed by this:

“Hatred is a reaction which forms a function. One of the best things about public art is that it can reveal to the itself observer over months and years.”

“If you look at something like the Watcher, a lot of it is about being brought up in that environment. Everything that I was exposed to is in that piece of sculpture. If I’d been brought up in the Norfolk Broads of something like that, I wouldn’t make pieces of sculpture like that.”

The installation at Sir William Gray House

When The Watcher was relocated, a time capsule was buried beneath it by local boxing promoter and developer Gus Robinson. It included a copy of the Hartlepool Mail, some payslips from Robinson’s employees, and some boxing programmes. Perhaps it will come to light if the Watchman ever makes its way back to the Marina, finally looking out to sea.

Thank you to John Atkin for generously giving his time and materials, to Jim McMurdo who was Project Manager of the installation for his information about the time capsule, and to Amy Mitchell and David Worthington at Sir William Gray House for their assistance.

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