Friday 26th October 2018 marked 100 years since Stonehenge was given to the nation by Sir Cecil Herbert Edward Chubb (1876–1934). He was the last private owner of the monument, which he donated to the British government in 1918.
It's strange to think that something so iconic, so timeless and so famous had been owned by someone in the past. The art here attests to the fact that it has always had a universal appeal – the stones belong to everyone.
We may still not know exactly what Stonehenge was for, or who built it – to paraphrase Spinal Tap, nobody knows who they were or what they were doing – but today we have a much better understanding of this unique site. Moreover, Stonehenge remains a popular feature in artistic works, right up to the present. So let's go on a whistlestop artistic tour of this magnificent monument.
Stonehenge's debut in oils
There have been various depictions of the monument in prints, drawings and medals, and this is the first known real depiction of Stonehenge, in watercolour.
This watercolour, painted by Flemish artist Lucas de Heere some time between 1573 and 1575, is the earliest known realistic depiction of Stonehenge. pic.twitter.com/RiM0GBDU2G— Stonehenge (@EH_Stonehenge) November 10, 2022
However, this is the earliest depiction of Stonehenge on Art UK, dating to around 1730 – the first image in oils.
That's around 4,000 years after the first stones were erected. The work is by the otherwise unknown artist 'Leathes'. The monument is viewed from the west, and there are numerous groups of tiny figures in the painting, even among the stones, which give an impression of their huge size.
The imagined landscape
Maybe these three examples are better classified as 'quasi-Stonehenges'. They use the monument to allude to other things – none of them depict it as it is in reality.
The first is by Welsh artist Thomas Jones.
His major work 'The Bard' is based on Thomas Gray's legendary tale of Edward I's massacre of the Welsh bards. The last surviving bard is cursing the English invaders (a sentiment still shared by some today!) before hurling himself to his death from a high rock above the River Conway. In the background appear the bodies of the bards and a circle of druidic stones based upon Stonehenge (but not actually Stonehenge).
The second is by James Barry. Barry was a passionate champion of neoclassical history painting, although the art establishment of the time didn't share his enthusiasm. As a result, he died neglected and overlooked.
This is one of Barry's most ambitious paintings, made for Alderman Boydell's 'Shakespeare Gallery', a collection of engraved scenes from Shakespeare by celebrated artists of the day, exhibited in 1789. In this tragic scene, a heartbroken King Lear supports the body of his beloved daughter Cordelia. Barry has used a heroic landscape with an approximation of Stonehenge in the background, alluding to Lear's setting in ancient Britain.
The third is an allegorical imagining of history through buildings.
From the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, in this painting civilisation is traced through its architecture, from a depiction of Stonehenge on the right, through to classical buildings in the centre, and on to London on the left. In the foreground is an architect or stonemason, who is drawing plans and is surrounded by his tools: a set square, compass, gavel and chisel. Freemasons make symbolic use of these tools in their ceremonies.
A backdrop for outdoor pursuits
Coursing is the pursuit of game or other animals by sighthounds, who catch the prey by sight and speed rather than by scent. Samuel Spode's depictions of horses and dogs are widely regarded as being among the best of his era.
These two works were painted decades apart but show essentially the same thing – coursing around the ancient stones – something that would definitely be frowned upon today!
Sheep, bustards and maybe Stonehenge?
Richard Tongue of Bath was a self-taught amateur artist with an interest in prehistoric monuments. He donated three paintings to the British Museum (this was before the National Gallery was collecting more contemporary art) of which this is one.
It is a scaled up version of Tongue's earlier Sheep Grazing, Stonehenge and is the largest of his known works.
In this painting of two bustards on Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge is hardly visible.
Can you see it in the background? It's in the title so it must be there... (Hint: it's on the right of the picture!)
Enter John Constable
The great landscape artist John Constable made a watercolour of Stonehenge which is now at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
This watercolour depiction of Stonehenge is by John Constable, a man far more inspired by his native countryside than the mountainous scenery favoured by his contemporaries. #SummerSolstice— V&A (@V_and_A) June 21, 2019
Lose yourself in Constable's skies, beautifully presented here: https://t.co/BIEtFwSc6z pic.twitter.com/oNJIjAOlJL
His preparation for this work included a study which is today in the collection of the British Museum.
In the preparatory work, you can still see the grid he used to mark out space and transfer the image to the finished work.
The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites
John William Inchbold (1830–1888) was born in Leeds, initially worked in watercolour, and was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites.
These two views of Stonehenge in oils (one in Leeds Art Gallery, one in the Society for Antiquaries, London) show the monument in different lights, and from slightly different perspectives.
Arrival of the modern era
Stonehenge has a timeless quality to it. However, in this painting, the modern era suddenly collides with ancient prehistory. A biplane is seen over Stonehenge.
The painting is from the 1980s but it captures a moment in September 1910 when Bertram Dickson, the first British serviceman to qualify as a pilot, flew over Stonehenge as part of British army manoeuvres on Salisbury plain. Due to a misunderstanding, Dickson landed in the enemy team's camp mistake – he had landed to report his reconnaissance by telephone!
Michael Scott's 1969 work feels almost abstract until your eye notices that the artist is close up to the stones, inside the circle – a different perspective from most of our works so far.
Malcolm Dakin is a Derbyshire-born artist who studied first at the Derby College of Art, and then at the Royal College of Art between 1964 and 1967. As well as featuring in a Yoko Ono film, he also worked as a background artist on The Beatles' 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine. In this dark and evocative painting from the late 1970s, there's a sense of anticipation – we're waiting for the rays of sunshine to creep over the black lintel and illuminate the monument.
Two contemporary pairings
Artist Stephen Morris created a series of twelve paintings of Stonehenge in the late 1990s. The first one here is 'January' – a painting showing the stones surrounded by a border of mauve, grey and dull green squares, evoking a winter's day.
The second one is 'June'. In this altogether brighter painting, Stonehenge is in silhouette in the centre surrounded by radiating segments in a range of colours, reminiscent of the rays of the sun at the all-important summer solstice.
These contrasting depictions of Stonehenge featuring blue and red skies are by Oxfordshire artist Michele Elizabeth Field.
They are in the collection of the Horton Hospital in Banbury. They echo earlier pairings of works on the monument – as with Monet's studies of light, there's a feeling that capturing Stonehenge at just one moment in time is never enough to fully understand it. We can perhaps never really 'know' Stonehenge – we can merely glimpse moments of it through our lives.
No doubt in another 100 years, there will be plenty more artistic depictions of this truly iconic site.
Andrew Shore, Head of Content at Art UK