Salisbury Museum is well known for our archaeology collections of national importance. Within our collecting area in south Wiltshire we have some of the most important archaeological sites in the country. Stonehenge is an obvious example, but there are many more lesser-known sites of prehistoric, Roman and medieval date on Salisbury Plain and Cranborne Chase that antiquarians and archaeologists have been investigating for generations. Most of the finds are in Salisbury Museum.
These sites have inspired generations of artists as well as archaeologists. Stonehenge has frequently appeared in paintings, prints and drawings from the 16th century. In the late 18th century an ambitious young artist called JMW Turner visited the site and sketched what he saw. This, and later visits, were to inspire his watercolour of Stonehenge that appeared in the celebrated Picturesque Views in England and Wales series of engravings in the late 1820s (the original watercolour is in Salisbury Museums’ collection). Turner’s vision is brutal, a poor shepherd and his sheep have been struck down by lightning overhead. The suggestion is that life is short, but the mysterious stones, ravished by time, are eternal. Turner’s contemporary and rival John Constable also produced a watercolour of the site in 1836.
It wasn’t just 18th and 19th century romantic artists who have been inspired by Stonehenge and Wiltshire’s prehistoric landscape. 20th century artists such as Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and John Piper have all taken an interest in prehistoric sites. For example Paul Nash was particularly fascinated with Avebury – and in particular the restoration work that was undertaken there. His Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) could be a direct response to the concrete slabs used at the Sanctuary near Avebury to mark out the positons where stones (or megaliths) once stood. Wiltshire’s prehistory has also featured in much advertising – for example Rex Whistler’s famous play on words – Stonehenge, Wilts. but Shell goes on forever.
It is due to this significant body of work that Salisbury Museum is preparing an exhibition looking at how British artists have been inspired by the prehistoric landscape, to open in 2017. It seems natural to celebrate art inspired by prehistory in a museum built on archaeology collections. It follows a theme we have carefully been exploring: exhibiting work by artists inspired by our archaeology collections and landscape. Examples include Tim Harrisson in 2010, Chris Carter in 2011 and Phillip Hughes in 2012.
Art and Archaeology (working title) will be curated by Professor Sam Smiles, a leading expert in the field. It will take Wiltshire as its starting point, but will go beyond this to look at other sites in other parts of the British Isles including Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. There will be a particular emphasis on megalithic sites but we will not be restricted to looking at just 2D work. Film, photography and sculpture will play an important part.
The most surprising discovery made during the research for the exhibition are two oil paintings by the film director Derek Jarman of Avebury and a short film from 1971 called A Journey to Avebury. Shot on 16mm film one could be fooled into thinking it is a home movie but it is so much more. It captures an empty landscape of trackways, vegetation, earthworks and stones – the sepia tones at odds with the green landscape that one knows it to be. It is strangely compelling to watch and in some ways evokes Turner’s view of Stonehenge – Turner’s choice of red, almost sepia, completely unrepresentative of the green landscape surrounding the stones.
Our preparations for the exhibition are already well advanced – loans from the Tate, British Council, The British Museum, V&A, Society of Antiquaries of London, National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh, English Heritage (Kenwood) and Royal Cornwall Museum and Northampton Museums & Art Gallery have been agreed. For further information and to keep updated with developments visit the museum’s website. We are also keen to collaborate with others, not only with parallel exhibitions, but other art forms such as music and film. Do get in touch with your ideas. It would be wonderful to take this exhibition and the events surrounding it outside of the museum into the wider landscape – which is what has inspired it in the first place…
Adrian Green, Director, Salisbury Museum