Antiquity has long been a source of inspiration for artists, with striking images of prehistoric monuments appearing in a variety of media across the centuries. Lucia Marchini visits an exhibition that explores the popularity of British prehistory in the visual arts.
The enduring appeal of prehistoric monuments makes them fitting subjects for artworks. From antiquarians to advertisers, many people have indulged their fascination with the remote past and responded to sites like Avebury and Stonehenge in innovative ways. Some, like John Constable and JMW Turner, have captured a picturesque landscape that they had visited; others have tried to record ruins to encourage their study. As the Salisbury Museum’s exhibition British Art: ancient landscapes shows, the diversity of works produced over nearly three centuries in a variety of media and for a variety of purposes reflects the richness of Britain’s prehistoric archaeology.
Some of the earliest images in the exhibition were created to illustrate works on prehistoric sites. In the 18th century, William Stukeley, secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London, remarked that ‘without drawing and designing the study of Antiquities… is lame and imperfect’. Stukeley visited Avebury several times during the 1720s and surveyed the site. The image he presents in his 1743 engraving A scenographic view of the Druid temple of ABURY in north Wiltshire, as in its original, however, departs from the evidence he gathered. Influenced by his belief that Druids built Stonehenge and Avebury, Stukeley offers an aerial view of Avebury, with the landscape altered and the form of the monument manipulated so that it appears more serpentine than his investigations had suggested. What is left is a structure that fits the antiquarian’s description that ‘the whole figure represented a snake transmitted through a circle; this is an hieroglyph or symbol of highest note and antiquity.’
Stukeley’s views have had a long legacy. The same snake-and-circle temple is seen in the work of William Blake, who used it as a symbol of Druidism in general and as a backdrop in a relief etching of c.1804-1821 from his poem Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. In the late 18th century, Blake painted watercolours of ancient British scenes, but by the early 19th century he had become greatly interested in stone circles and Druids, particularly with reference to Albion’s fall from grace. It is thought that the poet’s ideas about Druidism were informed by the Welsh antiquarian William Owen Pughe, who c.1806 commissioned a vast and now lost painting, The Ancient Britons, depicting King Arthur’s last battle against a background of what Blake described as ‘Druid Temples, similar to Stone Henge’. Other images inspired by prehistoric monuments feature in his work, such as a relief etching from Milton a Poem in 2 books (c.1804-1811), in which a figure on horseback appears next to a towering trilithon and a rocking stone.
The connection between Druids and stone circles is explored in a number of other works. The title page of the antiquarian Francis Grose’s fourth volume of The Antiquities of England and Wales (1776), for instance, features a vignette engraving by Samuel Sparrow depicting a Druid gathering mistletoe by a stone circle. This image combines accounts from Classical sources of Druids worshipping in oak groves and cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 16.249-251) with Stukeley’s recent thinking on stone circles. For his Antiquities of England and Wales series, Grose published texts with the images in order to share the latest scholarship with a wider audience.
Drawing the line
Opening up prehistory to a new public through illustrated books is a trend that has continued, as can be seen in Eric Ravilious’ dummy of White Horse: English Hill Monuments nearly two centuries later. This Puffin Picture Book would have introduced the Uffington White Horse and other chalk-hill figures, which are no longer thought to be prehistoric in origin, like the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Long Man of Wilmington to a young readership, along with prehistoric earthworks and barrows, and Silbury Hill. The dummy was sent to Puffin’s editor in January 1941, but the project was abandoned when Ravilious, a war artist, was lost in action the following year.
Stone circles have remained popular with artists and the public throughout the 20th century and up to the present day. Avebury in particular struck a chord with two 20th-century artists: Paul Nash and John Piper. Both became friends with archaeologist Stuart Piggott, who excavated there, and both returned to the site a number of times in their work.
Although Nash visited the excavation of the West Kennet Avenue and sketched the work, his own comments and those of archaeologist Alexander Keiller give the impression that he was primarily interested in the form of the megaliths rather than their archaeology. He was critical of Keiller’s restoration work, feeling that it made Avebury ‘as dead as a mammoth skeleton in the Natural History Museum’, but said of his 1937 lithograph Landscape of the Megaliths that ‘archaeologists have confessed that the picture is a true reconstruction because in it Avebury seems to revive’. Nash’s image shows the Avenue in alignment with Silbury Hill and Oldbury Castle. Referencing Stukeley’s description of Avebury as ‘a snake transmitted through a circle’, he has included a serpent whose head rises in front of the sun. Nash gave an impression of this lithograph to Piggott, who presented the artist with a copy of his 1935 essay ‘Stukeley, Avebury, and the Druids’.
Piper’s interest in archaeology can be seen in works spanning decades of his career. As a teenager, he was a member of the archaeological societies of Wiltshire and Surrey, and Wiltshire featured particularly heavily in Piper’s work, from his watercolour, ink, gouache and collage piece Archaeological Wiltshire (1936-1937) to his design for a stained-glass window in the Wiltshire Museum (1981), featuring Bronze Age burial goods, West Kennet Avenue, Devil’s Den cromlech, and Oldbury Castle. In the 1940s, Piggott proposed a book on British archaeology with the text written by himself and images produced by Piper. The project never came to fruition, but it shows Piggott’s understanding that art can enhance and promote the study of archaeology.
Something old, something new
Also in the 1940s, the recently founded Institute of Contemporary Art staged their second exhibition: 40,000 Years of Modern Art: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern. The show ran from December 1948-January 1949 and featured Palaeolithic figures and photographs of the Lascaux cave paintings, alongside the ‘Art of our Time’, with Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, and Pablo Picasso among the many artists represented. Two of the artists – Hepworth and Moore – had a fruitful relationship with British monuments. Moore published prints of Stonehenge in 1976, a site that won him over on a moonlit visit as a student in 1921. Hepworth moved to Cornwall in 1939, and came into close contact with the prehistoric monuments of west Penwith, which she viewed as sculptures in the landscape and which influenced her sculptural series of ‘menhirs’.
Now, just as then, prehistory has its place in contemporary art. Jeremy Deller’s representations of prehistoric monuments focus on their status in modern culture. His untitled poster of 2013 playfully sets the silhouette of Stonehenge against a retro lurid pink and orange background, referring to how the site was adopted by 1970s counterculture and hosted the annual Stonehenge Free Festival between 1974 and 1984. Since the mid 20th century, Stonehenge has been used as a backdrop for a ‘Clothes for New Druids’ feature in Vogue, for a Rolling Stones photoshoot, and, less glamorously, for Tom and Jerry on decorated BT phonecards. Although prehistoric sites have featured less frequently in fine arts over the last few decades, images like these ensure the monuments will be firmly cemented in the public consciousness for years to come.
British Art: ancient landscapes runs at Salisbury Museum until 3 September 2017; see www.salisburymuseum.org.uk
The beautifully illustrated accompanying catalogue by exhibition curator Sam Smiles is published by Paul Holberton at £25 (ISBN 978-1911300144).
This review was published in CA 330.