Visitors to Stonehenge have been taking photographs of the monument – and themselves – for almost 150 years. Lucia Marchini visited the site to explore a new exhibition showcasing some of these images, and the stories they tell.
Today most of us carry around phones equipped with cameras, ready to take a photo of an interesting view should the need or desire arise. It was not always quite so easy to take a casual snap, but from the dawn of photography one thing that has remained unchanged is that visitors to Stonehenge have wanted to capture an image as a memento of their visit – as some 150 photos currently on display at the site’s visitor centre show.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of when Cecil and Mary Chubb gifted Stonehenge to the nation, in 2018 English Heritage asked members of the public to send in their photos of the site. People answered the call in droves, and more than 1,000 images were submitted. As a result, a number of historically interesting photos have come to light. For example, one from around 1875 shows Isabel, Maud, and Robert Routh at the monument, resplendent in fine clothes and hats – together with a horse and carriage – in what is currently thought to be the earliest family photograph taken at Stonehenge.
In order to showcase the public’s enthusiastic response and long-standing relationship with site, English Heritage has now organised the first purely graphic exhibition at Stonehenge. Of the many photos sent in, some 150 have been selected, representing a full sweep of the site as seen through the lens. Of these, guest-curator and photographer Martin Parr has chosen his favourite ten.
Through these photos, different histories can be charted. They stand as witnesses of developments in social history, changing fashions, and photography (such as the rise of the portable and easy-to-use Kodak Brownie in 1901 and of the availability of colour film), and offer a recent history of the monument itself, as well as conservation and excavation work carried out at the site over the last 140 years.
Arranged roughly chronologically, the photos reveal some interesting trends. Among the submitted photos, there was a noticeable peak in images from the 1960s and 1970s, which English Heritage historian Susan Greaney suggests may be because more holiday-time, more cars on the road to make the journey, and more affordable cameras enabled more people to make – and document – trips to the site. Fewer photos were sent in from the 1980s, after the stones were closed off by ropes in 1978. Perhaps fewer people were visiting in favour of overseas destinations that were becoming more affordable, or photos taken on instant cameras with self-developing film did not survive. And now, with digital cameras fairly ubiquitous in our pockets, the number of photos we are taking is on the rise once more.
Many of the exhibited images capture a sense of playfulness or irreverence, with people frequently shown climbing on the stones (before they were roped off). The display traces a general move away from formal early photos, with figures posed far from the lens, to ones where people are much closer to the camera – culminating in ‘selfies’ becoming increasingly common in recent years. The selfie stick too has played its part, and a new photo taken by Martin Parr at the Autumn Equinox in 2019 portrays a couple making use of the often ridiculed contraption.
STORIES AND STONES
Stories are included alongside some of the photos, giving a personal insight into the images. Crowds flock for the Solstice, but more individual aspects of the site are explored as well. There are happy memories from a couple who visited a snowy Stonehenge on their honeymoon 50 years ago, an explanation of some spectacularly snazzy socks, an account of sacrifices of pre-roasted chicken, and a thoughtful reflection on a somewhat surly photo from the 1970s (‘In retrospect it probably wouldn’t have killed us to smile’).
Photos also capture Stonehenge as a place of work, for some people, not just a leisure destination. For example, one picture shows the photographer’s mother, who had sole catering rights at the site and sold refreshments from her caravan in the car park. Other activity was more archaeological in nature. In the 1950s, T A Bailey served as the senior architect responsible for ancient monuments in England and Wales, and oversaw the work to re-erect the trilithons and other stones that had fallen. His young son, Richard Woodman-Bailey, was photographed studying plans on an old wheelbarrow employed as a mobile desk.
During the Second World War, British and Allied soldiers prepared for action within the Salisbury Plain military training area. There was no excavation or restoration work at Stonehenge at the time, but plenty of military personnel visited the monument. A photo of a young girl, then Joyce McLaren, and her brother, Sergeant Observer Douglas Brian McLaren, taken in 1941, serves as a poignant reminder of this martial aspect of the Stonehenge landscape. In her story, she recalls, ‘My mother and I were visiting my Dad, who was in the Army, stationed on Salisbury Plain. Douglas was on leave, I think embarkation leave, from the RAF. I was 10 years old and he was 20. This was the last time we saw him. He was posted to Malta and reported missing, believed killed on a bombing raid attacking a German convoy taking supplies to Rommel in North Africa on 8 January 1942.’
Set among an interesting array of images of different visitors from 1875 to the present, stories like these bring home how Stonehenge has been a meaningful place for many people over the centuries.
Your Stonehenge: 150 years of personal photos runs at Stonehenge Visitor Centre until late August. Entry to the exhibition is free to Stonehenge ticket holders. Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/things-to-do/ for further details. To see an online archive of more photos that were submitted, visit www.stonehenge100.co.uk.