Ruth Guilding discovers much to stimulate and delight in two exhibitions of works inspired by ancient landscapes and archaeological finds
Archaeological relic, crucible of cosmic energy or bottleneck on the a303? Straddling the flatlands of Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge means something different for every passing traveller and for the scores of artists who have brought their particular agendas to bear on its massive forms.
‘British art, ancient landscapes’ sets out to explore artists’ responses to Britain’s prehistoric sites. There are works by the antiquarian William Stukeley (who revered the Druids), the zealot William Blake (who demonised them) and Jeremy Deller, whose Stonehenge bouncy castle brought an unlooked-for comedy to Britain’s 2012 olympiad. Stonehenge is the unchallenged star of this very pleasing show, for its unmistakeable silhouette exercises a magnetic pull and it has been drawn and painted and photographed over and over again.
georgian topographical artists made ancient standing stones and cairns into punctuation marks, composing scenic watercolours and prints around them for the lucrative new tourist market. Turner and constable summoned up their own signature dramas and nocturnes on Salisbury Plain, but even these pale to insignificance next to John William inchbold’s epic view of Stonehenge at sunset made in 1866–9, making a rare outing from its home above the grand staircase of the Society of antiquaries’ meeting rooms at Burlington house and as monumental as its subject.
Then, in the 20th century, pragmatic Modernists found that prehistory’s formal simplicity lent itself to their experiments with abstraction. Paul Nash’s oil painting Landscape of the Megaliths (1934) shows a single standing stone at avebury, its jagged surfaces redacted to a patchwork of colours and tones. John Piper’s mixed-media work, Archaeological Wiltshire (1936–7), has the raw fields littered with megaliths economically rendered in torn and collaged scraps of paper.
in the 1970s, henry Moore went in close to produce power- ful studies of Stonehenge that are exercises in abstract mark making, blackened stone surfaces whorled and textured as an elephant’s skin.
eric ravilious turned his original eye on the White horse at Uffington and the Wilmington giant, framing them slanting and oblique or behind a cat’s cradle of downland fence posts and rabbit wire. The Surrealist and occultist ithell colquhoun mapped out the landscape of her home in the lamorna Valley with its particular menhirs, stone circles and celtic crosses in the 1950s. like Stonehenge’s latter-day hippies, she invested them with ancient powers, ‘stones that whisper, stones that dance… stones that march as an army’.
however, within a few decades of this, Stonehenge had become a bitterly contested site. Photographs from The Salisbury Journal show white-robed druids mingling with hippies straddling the trilithons, kettled by police in riot gear. By the late
1980s, those who arrived to perform their rituals or tune in and turn on met a cordon of razor wire.
Posters and literature created during this short flowering of the counter-culture are this show’s final exhibits, for, inevitably, the forces of law and order prevailed. Today’s visitor will find it harder to draw inspiration from the stones during a fenced and marshalled route march around the site’s perimeter or at the summer solstice when ‘Managed Open Access’ is provided by English Heritage.
Stonehenge may be out of bounds to us, but, thanks to the enthusiasms of legions of mudlarks and metal detectorists, portable antiquities from more recent history are continually being returned to the light. The jeweller Romilly Saumarez Smith has been gathering a goblin hoard of Roman cloak pins and bridle buckles, battered and broken medieval trinkets, Anglo Saxon brooches, charms and finger rings for several years now and ‘remaking’ them into something magical and wholly new.
Silver Tudor thimbles sprout little skirts of coral twigs or an extravagant starburst of gold and silver wires seeded with gritty uncut diamonds; pins and finger rings are embellished without disturbing the corroded and blackened surface patinas that long eras underground spread over their surfaces. This new work enriches, enhances and sometimes stitches up damaged and lost areas. Old and new are planted or married together by processes that resemble some exquisite symbiosis in the natural world: the nacreous shell of a hermit crab over-armoured with barnacles and seaweed.
Romilly has lost the use in her hands to a neurological illness, so, although their unique and intricate designs are all her own, these pieces are made at a jeweller’s workbench in her old London house by the ‘borrowed hands’ of her assistants. In May, she was nominated as a finalist in the inaugural
Woman’s Hour Craft Prize. At the Ruthin Craft Centre, her pieces tell their stories beside eloquent black-and-white photographic prints of the orig- inal metal finds, made by her friend and artistic collaborator Verdi Yahooda.
In Stonehenge during a Thunderstorm (1794), Girtin uses vivid contrasts of light and shade to animate and dramatise the stones
Above: Cerne Abbas Giant III
by David Inshaw. Right: Romilly Saumarez Smith turns treasure into jewellery
Next week: Enlightened Princesses at Kensington Palace
John Piper’s mixed-media collage Archaeological Wiltshire (1936–7)