Lucas de Heere (1534-84), Stonehenge, about 1573-5, pen and ink on paper

Topography and prehistoric Britain

Britain's prehistoric landscapes are depicted in prints and drawings across the British Library's collections. Sam Smiles, Emeritus Professor of Art History, University of Plymouth, explores further.

The prehistoric monuments of Britain are strewn across the landscape but because their identity and purpose has been obscured, they have presented a challenge to topographers. 

Of all of them, Stonehenge was too monumental to be ignored and its representation dominates all other sites. A fanciful image of its construction was included in a French manuscript written c. 1338–42.[1] A contemporary work, a Scala Mundi ( ‘ladder of the world’) giving a Christian view of world history, shows Stonehenge as a rectangular structure.[2] 

The third known medieval representation of Stonehenge was produced a century later, c. 1441–42, and is thought to have been written in England. It uses the modern spelling of Stonehenge for the first time and includes a tiny illustration of four trilithons (two vertical stones supporting a lintel). Remarkably, the artist has understood how the lintels were fixed to the uprights by a mortise and tenon joint. This may therefore be the earliest surviving representation of Stonehenge based on direct observation.[3] These illustrations, however, are found in manuscripts with historical narratives and predate the emergence of topography, with its emphasis on describing the significant features of a defined geographical area.

Stonehenge, Corte Beschryvinghe van Engheland, Schotland, ende Irland

Lucas de Heere (1534-84), Stonehenge, about 1573-5, pen and ink on paper

This is one of the oldest depictions of Stonehenge in existence, and the first to have been drawn on site

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A more topographical approach, situating the monument in its landscape context, is evident in three very similar images produced in the reign of Elizabeth I: a watercolour of about 1572 by a visiting Flemish painter Lucas de Heere (above), an engraving by an unidentified artist ‘R.F’ (1575) and a watercolour by the herald William Smith (1588).[4] It has been suggested that all of them derive from a lost common model and that, although de Heere’s account speaks of ‘three ranks of stone ... as I myself have drawn them on the spot’, he may have copied the work of his compatriot Joris Hoefnagel who possibly visited Stonehenge with him in 1568 or early 1569.[5] Whatever their origin, these images coincide with the early development of chorography (the predecessor of topography) and demonstrate that Stonehenge was considered to be a notable example of British antiquity. 

Trethevy Quoit

Trethevy Quoit

This drawing of Trethevy Quoit is from the British Library's unique manuscript copy of Norden's Speculum Britanniæ

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The emergence of chorography as a new approach to recording the land is a feature of the later 16th century. Even at this early stage, some of its pioneers included prehistoric structures in their surveys. For example, in his Britannia (1586) William Camden mentions the Hurlers stone circles in Cornwall, which information probably came to him from his friend, the Cornish scholar Richard Carew who included them in his own Survey of Cornwall, published in 1602. His contemporary John Norden also wrote an account of Cornwall, which was based on fieldwork undertaken in about 1584.[6] His account of megalithic monuments includes the Hurlers, a circle called the Nine Sisters (since destroyed) and the dolmen known as Trethevy Quoit, which he was the first to describe, measure and illustrate. However, Norden’s account remained in manuscript until finally being published in 1728.

Despite a few prehistoric sites being illustrated in the Elizabethan era, they did not launch a widespread movement to record other monuments and it took another 60 years before the next steps were taken. The reasons for this relative neglect bear on the whole enterprise of topography and can be summarised as follows: 

  • First, for a site to be worth recording it needs to be identified as such; prehistoric remains were often ignored because they were simply not recognised as significant features. 
  • Second, the total lack of textual information about these structures confounded all interpretations of their meaning and so frustrated the topographer’s ideal of recording landscape features and also explaining them. 
  • Third, many of these remains are situated in remote or sparsely inhabited locations, isolated from other sites of interest. 

If a topographical project was selective in what it chose to record, these three reasons might well see prehistoric antiquities drop out of the reckoning. A comprehensive topographical account of an area was required if they were to be included.

Prospects of Stonehenge from the West and South

David Loggan (1634-92), A Prospect of Stonehenge from the West: A Prospect of Stonehenge from the South, published London, between about 1684-5

Tourists and gentlemen antiquaries can be seen visiting England's most famous prehistoric monument, in this engraving by David Loggan  

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Not surprisingly, therefore, it was Stonehenge that was represented most frequently. Some illustrations appeared in works that were concerned principally with its history, such as Inigo Jones’ account, published in 1655, which proposed a Roman origin for it.[7] David Loggan’s two engravings of the monument, published c. 1684–85, are closer to the topographical impulse. They present Stonehenge in its landscape setting both from the west and from the south. The text below them summarises some of the different speculations on its origins. 

Avebury, on the other hand, was not known to scholars at all until 1649 when John Aubrey came across it while hunting hares. He surveyed it and drew a plan of it in 1663, as he began work on his (unpublished) treatise Monumenta Britannica (c.1663–93).[8] Aubrey was the first to suggest that monuments such as Stonehenge and Avebury were much older than people believed and had probably been laid out by the Ancient Britons. 

Fellow scholars followed his lead. For example his friend, Robert Plot, included an engraving of the stone circle known as the Rollright Stones in his topographical account of Oxfordshire, published in 1677.[9] Another notable work of topography to include a prehistoric site was Thomas Philipott's Villare Cantianum: or Kent Surveyed and Illustrated (1659), illustrated with an engraving of Kit’s Coty House cromlech after a drawing by Francis Barlow.[10]

The Ground Plot of the British Temple now the Town of Aubury Wilts, AD 1724

Elisha Kirkall (about 1682-1742) after William Stukeley (1687-1765), The Groundplot of the British Temple now the Town of Aubury Wilts, AD 1724, printed for the author, London, 1743

This is the frontispiece to William Stukeley’s ground-breaking archaeological study of the Avebury stone circles

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The first printed account of Avebury was written by William Stukeley, the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He had read Aubrey’s manuscript and visited Avebury and Stonehenge on a number of occasions between 1719 and 1724, conducting extensive fieldwork and making a systematic survey of each of them. 

Stukeley also visited less well-known monuments in Wiltshire and beyond. His topographical publication Itinerarium curiosum (1724) included, among others, images of antiquities in Wiltshire, the Kit’s Coty House cromlech, and the stone circles at Stanton Drew in Somerset and Winterbourne Abbas in Dorset.[11] 

Stukeley increasingly associated stone circles with Druidism, a theory which coloured all interpretations of prehistoric monuments for generations. He published the results of these speculations in Stonehenge, a Temple restor’d to the British Druids (1740) and Abury, a temple of the British Druids, with some others described (1743). His enthusiasm for linking the Druids with stone circles was shared by other antiquarians, like Henry Rowlands, whose book on ancient Anglesey and Druidism, Mona Antiqua Restaurata (1723), includes diagrams of prehistoric remains found there and elsewhere in Britain.[12]

Stonehenge, in Antiquities of Great Britain

William Byrne (1743-1805) and Thomas Medland (active 1780-1833) after Thomas Hearne (1744 - 1817), Stone Henge, published London, 1 February 1786

Stone Henge was published in Thomas Hearne and William Byrne’s collaborative project: The Antiquities of Great Britain

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In the last quarter of the 18th century prehistoric monuments began to be regularly included in topographical surveys. A typical example is the drawing of Stonehenge made by Thomas Hearne in 1779, which was engraved as the final plate in his Antiquities of Great Britain ... illustrated in Views of Monasteries, Castles, and Churches, now existing (1786). 

Although less frequently depicted, other sites were not ignored. A number of artists investigated these monuments, especially when making sketching tours. One example is the work of the Swiss artist Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, who came to England in 1768 and produced over 2,600 topographical drawings for Sir Richard Kaye, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.[13] In 1789 Grimm sketched in Somerset and recorded the stone circles at Stanton Drew.

Stanton Drew, Druidical Stones

Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1733-94), Stanton Drew, Druidical Stones, 1789

Stanton Drew in Somerset is the location of one of England’s largest and most mysterious stone circles

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Writing in 1808, Nicholas Carlisle, the Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries, listed some 250 publications  for the study of topography in English counties, well over half of them published between 1770 and 1805.[14] A decade later the volume of topographical publications had increased even further. As the Quarterly Review commented in 1821:

Every nook in our island has now been completely ransacked, and described by our tourists and topographers... It would be difficult to name any structure of the ‘olden time’ which has not been transmitted into the portfolio and the library.[15]

This might seem the moment, therefore, when prehistoric antiquities would be regularly depicted. Certainly, many more images were included in topographical publications than had been the case before, but even in the hey-day of topography it was not guaranteed that these sites would be illustrated. 

Here aesthetic taste comes into play. In early topographical publications, the pleasure a visual image might give was not necessarily a significant factor in choosing whether or not to depict a site. Information was the paramount quality. 

However, as tourism developed in the later 18th century, topographical publications were driven by commercial considerations to widen their appeal beyond the world of scholarship. 

A growing enthusiasm for the picturesque also played a part. In these circumstances, the monuments chosen for depiction in publications needed to have some visual appeal, too. As regards orthodox taste, prehistoric structures could seem clumsy and primitive by comparison with other historical sites. Unless it was presented creatively, a cromlech or a small stone circle offered a less satisfying aesthetic experience than a famous castle or a ruined abbey.

A cromlech on Marlbro’ Downs

James Storer (1771-1853) after John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), A Cromlech on Marlbro’ Downs, published London, 1829, as title page for John Britton (1771–1857), The Beauties of Wiltshire

A watercolour by John Sell Cotman depicting the Devil’s Den cromlech was engraved for the title plate of Britton's Beauties of Wiltshire

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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.[16] 

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).[17] 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.

Stonehenge, Picturesque Views in England and Wales

Robert William Wallis (1794-1878) after Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Stone Henge, published London, Charles Heath (1785-1848)

Stonehenge is depicted in the midst of a terrifying electrical storm in this print after JMW Turner

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[1]With Merlin’s aid Stonehenge is built’ from Wace Roman de Brut, British Library, London, MS. Egerton 3208, f.30. 

The illumination shows Merlin taking down the great sarsen stones from a site in Ireland before they are transported to Wiltshire. See Christian Heck ‘Histoire Mythique et Archéologie au Quinzième Siècle: Une Représentation Inédite de Stonehenge’, in J.F. Hamburger and A.S. Korteweg (eds.) Tributes in Honor of James Marrow: Studies in Painting and Manuscript Illumination of the Late Middle Ages and Northern Renaissance (London: Harvey Miller, 2006), pp. 253-60.

[2] Scala Mundi, c. 1338–42, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS. 194, f. 57r. 

[3] Scala Mundi, c. 1440–41, Bibliothèque Municipale, Douai, MS. 803, f. 55r.

At Stonehenge, the mortise and tenon construction can be deduced from the knobs (mortises) on upright stones that have lost their lintels and from the cup-shaped depressions (tenons) in the undersides of fallen lintels. The image in the manuscript, however, shows intact trilithons, with their lintels ‘transparent’ to show the mortise and tenon arrangement.

[4] William Smith, Particuler Description of England (unpublished) British Library, London, MS Sloane 2596, f.35v.           

[5] See Christopher Chippindale, Stonehenge Complete, 3rd edition, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), pp. 33–6.

[6] John Norden, Speculi Britanniae pars, or a topographical and historical description of Cornwall, by the perambulacion, view, and delineacion of John Norden, British Library, London, Harley MS.6252. The manuscript was written perhaps in 1590 and presented to James I in 1604.

[7] Inigo Jones and John Webb, The most notable Antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stone-Heng (London 1655), British Library  454.f.1.

[8] ‘Plan of Avebury’, Monumenta Britannica, 1663, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. Top gen c. 24, fols 39v–40r.

[9] Robert Plot, The Natural History of Oxford-Shire (Oxford, 1677), plate XVI.

[10] Barlow’s drawing is in the collection of the British Museum, London, 1993,1211.5. 

[11] William Stukeley, Itinerarium curiosum: or, An account of the antiquities, and remarkable curiosities in nature or art, observed in travels through Great Britain (London, 1724).

[12] Henry Rowlands, Mona Antiqua Restaurata: An Archaeological Discourse on the Antiquities, Natural and Historical, of the Isle of Anglesey, the Antient Seat of the British Druids (Dublin, 1723).

[13] For Grimm and Kaye see Brett Dolman ‘ “Everything Curious”: Samuel Hieronymus Grimm and Sir Richard Kaye’, Electronic British Library Journal, London 2003.

[14] Nicholas Carlisle, A Topographical Dictionary of England, (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1808), pp. xviii-xxiv.

[15] The Quarterly Review, vol. xxv, April and July 1821, p.113.

[16] The original watercolour (c. 1803–10) is in the collection of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY: 1864.1.267. 

[17] The original watercolour (c.1827) is in the collection of The Salisbury Museum.

  • Sam Smiles
  • Sam Smiles is Emeritus Professor of Art History, University of Plymouth. He has written extensively on British art c. 1750-1850, focusing particularly on the works of J.M.W. Turner. He has a special interest in the relationship between antiquarianism and the visual arts.