41 • Sketch of Stonehenge

41 • Sketch of Stonehenge

James Sowerby (1757–1822), circa 1800
Signed bottom right
19 × 47 cm; Ink, pencil & watercolour on paper


‘all that can be learn’d of them, is, That here they are
Daniel Defoe, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, 1724–1727

It is often said that to understand our ancient ancestors it is not in books but rather the landscape itself which offers the richest guide. None of these is more famous or formidable than Stonehenge, standing as an icon for all that is mysterious and awe-inspiring about humanity’s prehistoric past. Most who probe this mystery eventually resign it to a knowledge from a distant and inaccessible history, whose mysteries stand as tall and insurmountable as the stones themselves, attracting theories too distant and disparate.

Others claim to understand the stones and their role in our prehistoric lives. English author John Michell (1933–2009) was one such man, believing in the existence of an ancient spiritual knowledge which connected humanity to divinity, though now lost to modernity:

The moon, as well as the sun, the planets and the nearer stars disturb the earth’s magnetism, causing it to flow in tides and currents. These vary with the time of day, the phases of the moon and other astronomical factors. [ . . . ] Megalithic monuments are of a time when the science of the magi was in its ascendency. [ . . . ] The influences of the cosmos were not only brought to earth in the sense of divine knowledge fertilising human understanding, but also in the most literal sense, cosmic and solar energy being introduced into the earth’s vital system by means of conductors, the ‘phallic’ stone of megalithic science. In this way the earth, understood as a living creature, was made fertile and contented, a mood which it communicated to all the living things inhabiting its body.

The Old Stones of Land’s End, John Michell, 1974 © The Garnstone Press Ltd

(Included on the title page of this catalogue is a scribble by my father I found on a scrap of cardboard – ‘You may find God searching for stones.’ It has mystified me ever since coming across it, though perhaps John Michell has provided an answer.)

Sowerby’s version of Stonehenge pervades a sense of redundancy from the ancient and great past to which John Michell refers, the stones leaning and lying about drunkenly like a de-commissioned regiment of officers. Henry’s sketch is more optimistic, though rather satisfyingly you can place Sowerby’s stones almost precisely in Henry’s sketch by shifting your angle of vision to the right, and vice versa. Together they seem symbolic of Stonehenge and the differing views and emotions it inspires.

You may find God searching for Stones