We’d been meaning for ages to go visit the famed Chesterfield snail, but Covid got in the way and it wasn’t until a few months ago that we finally caught up with it. Not that there was much chance of it getting away. Snails are notoriously slow at the best of times, and this one’s chances of making a run for it are hampered by the fact that it’s 5 metres / 16 feet tall and fashioned from sheets of brushed stainless steel.
Mollusc sits in a small area of parkland at the edge of a housing estate, on land that was once home to the Markham Engineering Works. Why, we wondered, would anyone choose to erect an enormous steel snail here…or anywhere else, for that matter? The reason, it seems, is that ancient fossil gastropods have been found in the coal measures that are widely distributed around this area of Derbyshire. Sculptor Liz Lemon has made sure that none of the locals will ever forget this obscure piece of trivia.
Lemon also took inspiration from the industrial history of the site: the form of the Mollusc echoes the casings of huge turbines that were once manufactured at the Markham works before being shipped to hydro-electric power plants around the world. This chapter of Chesterfield’s industrial history is further honoured by inscriptions in the base of the sculpture bearing the replica signatures of former Markham employees.
Although the setting is incongruous, as a piece of artwork Mollusc is undeniably eye-catching. The gleaming shell’s spiral design is decorated with a series of “portholes” that reduce in size towards its centre. These, I understand, are lit up at night by blue and green fibre optic lights, but as we visited during daylight hours this intriguing feature was invisible to us.
Installed in 2003, the Mollusc is part of Chesterfield’s Art Trail. It, and more than 70 other pieces of public art, was funded from the local council’s “Percent for Art” scheme. Developers of schemes costing over one million pounds (USD 1.15m) are encouraged to include a work of art to the value of 1% of the total cost of the project, with a view to help “create a sense of place and add character to the built environment.”
I hope that the current financial crisis engulfing the UK doesn’t undermine the Percent for Art scheme. If the Mollusc is anything to go by, this is an enlightened initiative that can only enhance the character of Chesterfield’s urban landscape. Mrs P and I look forward to exploring other hidden gems on the Chesterfield Art Trail in 2023.