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The Auguries (Last Calls)

Andy Holden

© Scott Merrylees


Andy Holden was inspired by the fact that the world’s first recognised nature reserve was founded in the Wakefield District by Charles Waterton at Walton Hall in 1826. Waterton also invented the ‘hide’ for observing birds. Andy has a special interest in birds and often works with his father, Peter. Peter Holden formerly worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and set up the annual Big Garden Birdwatch.

Andy identified a number of birds native to the British Isles that are in rapid decline. He transformed recordings of the birds’ songs into sculptures based on the shapes of the sound waves. The sculptures are cast in bronze and you can hear the bird song through the QR code, as well as find out more about the birds. The artwork is called Auguries because ancient Romans used birds to predict the future. Augur means to portend a good or bad outcome, or to foretell.



The Wakefield district is one of Yorkshire’s leading cultural destinations. The city is known especially for sculpture, being the birthplace of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. It is the only city outside London to have two Art Fund Museums of the Year: The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The Auguries (Last Calls) is part of a series of sculptures for the city, commissioned in 2023. The series offers a unique opportunity for everyone to experience and enjoy world-class art. Each artist has created a work especially for the place, its history and communities.

Wakefield Sculpture Trail


Andy Holden (b. 1982, Bedford, UK) is an artist whose work includes sculpture, large installations, painting, pop music, performance, animation, curating and multi-screen-videos. His first major exhibition was ‘Art Now: Andy Holden’ (2010) at TATE Britain, in which he exhibited Pyramid Piece, an enormous knitted rock based on a chunk of pyramid that he stole from the Great Pyramid of Giza as a boy. Solo exhibitions of his work have included ‘Chewy Cosmos Thingly Time’ (2011) at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge and ‘Cookham Erratics’ at the Benaki Museum in Athens (2012). He has also made a large number of performances including Tate, ICA, Whitechapel Gallery and Performa New York. From 2011-2017 Holden worked on Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape, an hour-long animated film which explored the idea that the world was now best understood as a cartoon and examined how physics works in cartoons. The film was first shown at Glasgow International 2016 and Venice Biennale in 2017. Holden’s recent work Natural Selection (2017), commissioned by Artangel, was made in collaboration with his father Peter Holden and used a detailed exploration of birds nests and eggs to explore questions of nature and nurture, and mankind’s changing relation to the natural word. In 2018 he opened the gallery Ex-Baldessarre as part of his studio in Bedford, whichserves as a platform for curating experimental projects. He is currently curating ‘Beano: The Art of Breaking the Rules’ which run at Somerset House and has previously curated ‘World as Cartoon’ at Tate Britain (2017) and Be Glad for the Song has No End at Wysing Arts Centre (2010). Holden showed a series of new works as part of British Art Show 9 which toured the UK throughout 2021-22 and his show, ‘Full of Days,’ with work by Hermione Burton opened at The Gallery of Everything in March 2023.

These sculptures are a melancholy time capsule of birds’ songs that could soon disappear, sung by species in rapid decline. They should act as totems to remind us of our fragile relationship with nature. The songs are memorialised as sculptures. By reading the shape of the sculpture we can reconstruct the sound in our mind.

Andy Holden


The bronze sculptures are three dimensional representations of wave forms generated by recording the unique song of each bird. Wave forms of sound recordings are normally viewed horizontally, however the sculpture are displayed vertically, pointing up towards the sky. The species represented here were inspired by references in Waterton’s notebooks, and because they are species in rapid decline throughout the U.K, and in particular the Yorkshire area. The Swift, for example, has declined by over 50% in the last 25 years in Yorkshire.

The use of bronze recalls the public sculptures of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, who would sometimes take natural elements such as stones or flint as the starting point for their public works. The sound of each bird becomes a solid form and given the long life of bronze as a material the sculptures could outlive the presence of the species they represent, becoming memorials to sounds that are no longer audible to future generations. The concrete base is recessed with the shape of a lituus staff, these spiral wands were used by augurs in ancient Rome to interpret the movement of birds in an attempt to predict the future.

The patina of each bronze lightly references the distinctive colouring of each species, or the environment in which the bird can be found. The songs, when turned into solid forms, become reminiscent of other objects. The Mistle Thrush song recalls the shape of a tree, the Bittern is reminiscent of a reed stem, invoking its habitat, and the screech of the swift evokes a gothic church spire reaching up into the sky, which is a common nest site for Swifts after returning from their long migratory journey.



Throughout history observing birds has taught us about the world around us and helped us make predictions for the future. In 1962 American author Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’, a book that began with her observations about the decline in bird song and lead her to identify the destructive effect the widespread use of pesticides was having on the countryside and the food chain. Her book sparked the environmental movement across the world. 


Through closely watching birds in his local area, Charles Waterton (1782-1865) similarly has much to tell us about the future of our countryside. Waterton was the owner of Walton Hall, Wakefield which was possibly the first wildfowl and nature reserve in the world. Constructing a wall around his private bird sanctuary Waterton opposed the then widespread practice of shooting, for he saw the effect the persecution of birds of prey by local gamekeepers was having on the population of Buzzards, Kite’s and Ravens in the area. He was particularly critical of a local farmer who had shot and killed the last Bittern in the area.


He built what is likely the first example of a bird hide so he could discreetly watch birds close up and make firsthand observations, and he created nesting sites for owls. He made a space for “poor, persecuted” birds such as the heron, and wrote about the drastic effect local industry was having on bird life in the area through the pollution of rivers. Many of his observations, unpopular at the time, were prescient and speak to the problems we face in the environment today.


Waterton was also captivated by the mystery and beauty of birdsong, and in his typically sparkling prose that is found throughout his notebooks, wrote:

‘“I sometimes peevishly ask myself, Why should nature have made a provision in the male blackbird, in order that he may soothe his incubating female, and have denied that provision to my favourite, the carrion crow? And then I answer my own question, by whispering to myself, that the she carrion may possibly experience wonderful delight in listening to the hoarse croaking of her partner; just as the old Scotchwoman did, when she used to gaze at the carbuncle on her husband’s nose… We listen with delight to the many species of male birds which make the groves resound with their melody…”

As Waterton was writing in the 1840’s we now know the answers to many questions raised by his observations, and understand birdsong to serve a function in relation to determining a birds territory and that the male bird sings mainly in spring to attract a female. His notebooks also record the positive effect bird song had on him; “When I hear the first note of the chaffinch, I know that winter’s on the eve of his departure, and that sunshine and fine weather are not far off…”

It is often the case that bird song is heard and enjoyed all together as a chorus, but these sculptures let us see how distinct the songs of different species can be. The five birds selected form a quintet: the Bittern as the bass, the Yellowhammer singing a repeated motif, the Mistle Thrush improvising on a jazzy theme, the Swift adding an aggressive tone and the Skylark providing a long complex ever varying melody that soars above the others.

Bird song has a longstanding influence on British culture, and countless references are found throughout poetry and music. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s, ‘Lark Ascending’ and Benjamin Britain’s ‘Cuckoo’ from his ‘Songs for a Friday Afternoon’ pay homage to the sounds of the birds that inspired their compositions. Notable examples in poetry include ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats and ‘To a Skylark’ by Percy Bysshe Shelly:

Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

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