Contemporary art is on view at Stonehenge’s visitor centre for the first time. Lucia Marchini went along to take a look and find out more about an artistic approach to archaeology.
In 2015, a lithograph by Henry Moore gained international attention when it was presented as a gift to Barack Obama. The print depicted Stonehenge, a site the US President had visited the year before. Moore had first visited in the 1920s, and some 50 years later produced a lithograph series focused on the Neolithic monument.
Henry Moore is by no means the only artist to have engaged with the site: Stonehenge has had a deep and lasting impact on the visual arts in Britain. Turner and Constable created their own landscapes featuring the monument in the 19th century, and, more recently, Jeremy Deller offered a more playful approach with a bouncy castle dubbed Sacrilege.
In the last issue of CA, we featured an exhibition that explored the funny side of the Roman frontier at Hadrian’s Wall. Now we delve into the creative side of a rather more ancient site, as Stonehenge hosts its first contemporary art exhibition. Instead of showcasing depictions of the monument and its surrounding prehistoric landscape (of which there are many varied examples), Linda Brothwell: Conversations in Making enters into a dialogue with Salisbury Plain’s rich heritage in a new way. The temporary exhibition is held in the visitor centre, in close proximity to permanent displays of prehistoric artefacts from the area, including a polished stone axe, a fine ceremonial battle axe shaped from the same material as the Stonehenge bluestones, a decorated chalk plaque, a miniature ‘grape cup’ adorned with small clay nodules, and sherds of Grooved Ware pottery. The exhibition presents some 40 works in silver, copper, brass, and lead, produced by Bristol-based artist Linda Brothwell using traditional methods of turning and raising that evoke forms found across the local area.
For the project, Brothwell spoke to people in and around Amesbury working in a range of crafts and trades. She consulted a thatcher, cobbler, key-cutter, hairdresser, and tattooist, and, as well as working with the local community, she delved into local collections at the Wiltshire Museum and the Salisbury Museum. Drawing inspiration from this wealth of material, Brothwell’s resulting metal vessels are an enticing mix of sizes and shapes with a delightfully varied palette of textures and colours. Glowing pinks, silvers, coppers, and blacks are all on display in a carefully lit space. In some cases, treatments such as patination of copper and hammered surfaces give an impression of ageing, but the pieces are not simple replicas of older works. One vessel in particular will go through its own process of ageing throughout its time on view. Made of lead and somewhat reminiscent of the Bronze Age Ringlemere Gold Cup (see CA 179 and 208), the piece is likely to slump due to the nature of the metal, but this is not a worry to the artist, who is keen to embrace the properties of the material, which imbue the artwork with a life of its own.
Testing their metal
It is fitting to have an exhibition of metal works against the backdrop of Salisbury Plain. One key find from the area is the c.2,300 BC grave of the Amesbury Archer (CA 184 and 265). Unearthed in 2002 and now displayed at the Salisbury Museum, the Archer was buried with gold ornaments, copper knives, sandstone wrist-guards, and Beaker pots. The burial, with the oldest gold found in Britain (dated to around 2,450 BC) and a cushion stone that served as an anvil for working metal, highlights the importance of metalworking tools during a period of transformation in the Early Bronze Age. The Archer travelled to Stonehenge from central Europe, bringing with him knowledge and goods from the Continent, and, as his substantial grave goods suggest, would have held a position of some standing in his community.
As well as the Amesbury Archer and other local burials, Brothwell has looked to the stones of Stonehenge for inspiration, particularly their weathered surfaces, marked with a smattering of lichen and carvings of axe-heads and daggers. These worn textures are reflected in the surfaces of some of the artist’s vessels, which also feature makers’ marks.
Brothwell’s works are reminiscent of the types of objects that appear in local collections. There are no texts accompanying the pieces (though volunteers at the visitor centre are equipped with tablets bearing information about a select few artefacts). Instead, viewers are encouraged to bring in their own interpretations and connections to archaeological material they may have seen elsewhere. We are treated to miniature urns, the familiar form of a Beaker pot, a piece akin to the Amesbury wrist-guards, and small bowls with legs resembling prehistoric polypod vessels. The more recent RAF heritage of the area is also alluded to, as is the role of Amesbury as an important centre of clay-pipe manufacture in the 17th century.
It is an intriguing change to see forms we are perhaps more used to seeing in ceramics rendered in metal instead. Gorgeous contemporary works may bring in a different kind of audience to Stonehenge, but they also serve as a reminder of the aesthetic value of archaeological evidence, and challenge the viewer to bring some of the ways we look at art to our appreciation of prehistoric artefacts, whether decorated vessels or worked tools.
After the exhibition, Brothwell’s works will be given away in the local community, to schools, libraries, and even a fish and chip shop. They can be used however the recipients see fit, even as a humble pen pot, continuing the conversation around their use.
Linda Brothwell: Conversations in Making runs at Stonehenge’s visitor centre until 24 November 2019. Tickets are £19 for an adult (concessions are available). Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/ things-to-do/ for details.