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Sutton Hoo Helmet (sculpture)

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Colour photograph of the Sutton Hoo visitor centre, outside of which hangs the sculpture Sutton Hoo Helmet by Rick Kirby
Sutton Hoo Helmet seen outside the Sutton Hoo visitor centre
The sculpture from below

Sutton Hoo Helmet is a 2002 sculpture by the English artist Rick Kirby. It is a representation of the Anglo-Saxon namesake helmet found in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, and was commissioned by the National Trust to hang outside the Sutton Hoo visitor centre. Together with the centre, the sculpture was unveiled by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney on 13 March 2002.

The sculpture is 1.8 m (5.9 ft) high, 1.2 m (3.9 ft) wide, 1.6 m (5.2 ft) deep, and weighs 900 kg (2,000 lb); it is made of mild steel plates that are coloured red. Designed to have a "fierce presence",[1] it takes as its inspiration the fragmentary appearance of the reconstructed helmet rather than the glistening replica made by the Royal Armouries. Steel is Kirby's favoured medium, giving him "the ability to go huge" and the "whoom-factor!", as he terms it, that are seen in Sutton Hoo Helmet.[2] The sculpture is also illustrative of Kirby's largely figural body of work, and its mask-like quality has been repeated in subsequent pieces.


Sutton Hoo Helmet was commissioned for the Sutton Hoo visitor centre, unveiled in March 2002.[3][4] Four years earlier the 245-acre Sutton Hoo estate had been donated to the National Trust upon the death of Annie Tranmer.[5] She had been the last owner of the estate, coming after the Barton family and before them the Prettys, under whose ownership the Sutton Hoo ship-burial had been excavated in 1939.[6] The National Trust began plans to construct a visitor centre, and in 2000 van Heyningen and Haward Architects were chosen to design it.[7] Their work included the overall planning of the estate, the design of an exhibition hall and visitor facilities, car parking and the restoration of the Edwardian house to provide additional facilities.[8] The £5m visitor centre was opened on 13 March 2002 by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, whose translation of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that describes extravagant burial customs similar to those observed at Sutton Hoo, had been published in 1999.[9]

For the visitor centre, the National Trust also commissioned English sculptor Rick Kirby to create a sculpture of a helmet; he was tasked with making something with a "fierce presence".[1] The resulting piece, Sutton Hoo Helmet, was winched into place above the entrance of the visitor center on 26 February 2002, ahead of its official unveiling in March.[1][3]

In 2005 the original maquette for Sutton Hoo Helmet, 197 cm (78 in) high with pedestal, was offered for sale.[10][11] Its asking price was £9,600.[10][11]


Sutton Hoo Helmet is based on the famous Sutton Hoo helmet found in the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, but rendered on a much grander scale.[12] It is made from 900 kg (2,000 lb)[1] of mild steel steel plates that have been coloured red, and is 1.8 m (5.9 ft) high, 1.2 m (3.9 ft) wide, and by 1.6 m (5.2 ft) deep.[3][4] The external structure rests on an internal steel frame.[3]

Like the Anglo-Saxon helmet, which was found in more than 500 fragments,[13] Kirby's piece is made of many pieces of metal, evoking an object reconstructed by an archaeologist.[1] The sculpture intentionally emulates the fragmentary appearance of the helmet's second reconstruction, reassembled from 1970 to 1971 by Nigel Williams,[14][15] rather than the glistening replica made by the Royal Armouries.[3] Sutton Hoo Helmet was described by the National Trust as "fantastic – such a striking image and it has a real wow factor."[1][12]

Both the material and the subject of the Sutton Hoo Helmet are typical of Kirby's body of work. Steel is Kirby's material of choice, for what he describes as "the ability to go huge" and its "whoom-factor!"[2] Much of Kirby's other work focuses on the human face and form,[16] and his later pieces Masks and Vertical Face repeat the same staring, unemotive quality.[2][12]



  • Axle Arts [@axle_arts] (14 June 2015). "@NT_SuttonHoo thought you may be interested we have the original maquette of your Sutton Hoo helmet by #RickKirby" (Tweet). Retrieved 6 December 2017 – via Twitter.
  • Bruce-Mitford, Rupert (Autumn 1972). "The Sutton Hoo Helmet: A New Reconstruction". The British Museum Quarterly. British Museum. XXXVI (3–4): 120–130. JSTOR 4423116. closed access
  • Cocke, Richard (29 July 2009). "Sutton Hoo Helmet". Recording Archive for Public Sculpture in Norfolk & Suffolk. Retrieved 6 December 2017. Free to read
  • Cocke, Richard (2013). Public Sculpture of Norfolk and Suffolk. Public Sculpture of Britain. 16. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-1-84631-712-5.
  • Dawson, Susan (10 October 2002). "Modest building fit for a king". The Architects' Journal. Emap Construct: 4–7. closed access
  • Kennedy, Maev (14 March 2002). "Sutton Hoo Lays Out its Treasures". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 February 2018.
  • "Rick Kirby". Bath Contemporary. Archived from the original on 11 October 2015. Free to read
  • "Rick Kirby: 29 May – 20 June 2015" (PDF). Axle Arts. 2015. Retrieved 6 December 2017. Free to read
  • "Rick Kirby Sculptor Profile". ArtParkS International. Retrieved 3 January 2018. Free to read
  • "Sutton Hoo attraction moves closer". Ipswich Star. 26 February 2002. Retrieved 3 January 2018. Free to read
  • "Sutton Hoo Gets the Nod". The Architects' Journal. Emap Construct. 24 February 2000. closed access
  • "Tranmer House at Sutton Hoo". National Trust. Retrieved 8 February 2018. Free to read
  • Williams, Nigel (1992). "The Sutton Hoo Helmet". In Oddy, William Andrew. The Art of the Conservator. London: British Museum Press. pp. 73–88. ISBN 978-0-7141-2056-0.
  • Worsley, Giles (2 September 2003). "Spooky Sutton Hoo loses its magic". The Telegraph. Retrieved 8 February 2018. Free to read