Lucas de Heere, Stonehenge, c. 1572
Images: Wikimedia Commons
In British Art: Ancient Landscapes, a catalogue published last year for an exhibition at The Salisbury Museum, Sam Smiles describes the history of artistic engagement with Britain's ancient stone circles and chalk figures. It goes roughly as follows:
- In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, illustrations to accompany the writings of early antiquarians like William Stukeley. The first known painting was by a Flemish artist, Lucas de Heere.
- From the mid eighteenth century, topographical engravings and watercolours by artists like Thomas Hearne and Samual Prout.
- Romantic era paintings of Celtic bards and druids, along with the stone circles in William Blake's vision of Albion.
William Blake, Milton: a Poem, c. 1811"All things begin & end in Albion's ancient Druid rocky shore: But now the Starry Heavens are fled from the mighty limbs of Albion."
- Also at this time, dramatically composed paintings of Stonehenge with Sublime, stormy skies by the great figures in British landscape art: Girtin, Turner, Constable.
- Then relatively few Victorian paintings, but a revival of interest among the Neo-Romantics - Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore - who drew on Surrealism, Primitivism and abstract art, but also took an interest in the findings of twentieth century archaeology.
- In the inter-war years, sights like Stonehenge, The Long Man of Wilmington were celebrated in Shell posters and their strong, simple forms made them ideal subjects for prints and watercolours by contemporary artists like Eric Ravilious.
- After the war attention turned to urban subjects but there was a revivial of interest in the late sixties and new forms of engaging with the monuments: the walks of Richard Long, Derek Jarman's film, Journey to Avebury.
- Finally, the present day, and it is surprising that the exhibition couldn't find more recent artworks shaped by psychogeography, hauntology and modern antiquarianism. The story currently ends with Jeremy Deller, whose bouncy Stonehenge I featured here back in 2012.
John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835
After putting a link to this post on Twitter, the excellent @BL_prints alerted me to a Sam Smiles piece on their blog, which tells the story above up to the early nineteenth century. Here's a brief extract for you, his final two paragraphs, with an image from the BL website.
The aesthetic presentation of prehistoric structures was most successful when their massiveness and monumentality was heightened by the artist’s approach. The topographer John Britton recruited very capable artists to illustrate his numerous publications: the title page of the third volume of his survey The Beauties of Wiltshire (1825) includes an engraving of 1812, based on a drawing by John Sell Cotman. The subject is the cromlech on Marlborough Downs known as the Devil’s Den and the impact of the image relies on close focus, a low horizon and a stormy sky.
This tendency to exaggerate the sublimity associated with these monuments, concentrating on their enigmatic, even weird presence in the landscape, ran the risk of removing them from topography completely. The key instance of this approach is probably JMW Turner’s watercolour of Stonehenge, engraved in 1829 for Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1827–38). Turner had visited the site at least twice, in 1799 and 1811, and had studied it carefully. His watercolour, however, sacrifices detail for theatrical effect as Stonehenge becomes the setting for a spectacular thunderstorm, with sheep killed by lightning, their shepherd struck down and his dog howling at the sky. Here, then, topography’s ideal of the accurate record surrenders almost completely to the artistic impulse.