‘They are the faults of archaeology rather than art’
Earlier this year I was privileged to see The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe by George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel (1890) in the excellent Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Only seeing the original painting does it proper justice and I urge you to visit the Kelvingrove to see its full wonder.
The painting was supported by interpretative signage, one of which explained:
Needless to say this required further investigation.
In his biography of Hornel, Smith notes in relation to the composition of The Druids,
‘The half-sphere of the moon on the background is reflected in the curve of the hill and the shapes of the priestly insignia, all echoing the cup-and-ring markings‘.
Looking at the Druid Landscape, Smith underplays the extent to which the lunar has been evoked through the cool silvery quality of the light and exaggerated topography of the hills upon which the Druids process. Rather it as if they wander from and across the very surface of the moon itself, in turn implying the Druids emerged directly from the cup-and-ring markings themselves and those who produced them.
A similar blurring between the realities of topographic forms and the layers of mythological liminality which we inhabit can also be seen in an earlier work by Hornel, The Brownie of Blednoch (1889). In the background we can again see a full moon resonating cup-and-ring marks.
Gallovoidian shepherd beast, beard of circles and cup-marked eyes. A manifestation of the living rock, tor like outcrop, it dominates a landscape (which would typically be portrayed as a pastoral idyll), above which swoop dark clouds suggesting eldar forms and witch-like figures.
Smith emphasises the importance to these works of the discovery of cup-and-ring markings near Kirkcudbright in 1886 and says,
‘Hornel searched for other markings in the rocks in the region‘
during which searches, the idea for The Druids came to him. Smith continues to explain that on a visit by Hornel to some carvings with an old man, they returned to the old man’s house, where according to an account by A S Hartrick (1939),
‘….he took from a shelf a small china bowl in which was a small bluish stone like bead*. Holding this in his hand, in a few minutes he seemed to go off in a sort of trance, and then began to describe,…,a vision of a procession of priests with sacred instruments and cattle which were somehow connected with the cup-and-ring markings. I cannot remember the details of it; all I can say is the vision appeared genuine, and that he was not drunk. After a time he became normal again, but would not talk anymore on the subject.‘ *I like to imagine this could be a Bronze Age fiance bead most often having been found associated with burials.
The particular cup-and-ring markings which Smith says first inspired Hornel were published in an article by F R Coles (1888). He explains ‘Some of the most remarkable of these Petroglyphs were those found by Mr E A Hornel and myself on the 23rd February, 1887‘ (ibid 44) and were portrayed as a photo-lithograph:
In the same paper Coles reveals ‘While preparing this I hear to-day (14th September, 1887) of the discovery of yet more and more peculiar petroglyphs on the same piece of rock at High Banks by Mr Hornel and Mr Thompson.’ (ibid 46)
Other papers on the discovery at High Banks reveal a few further details about the nature of the discoveries. In a paper by Hamilton (1887) it is recorded that
‘Mr Rigg, who has been tenant of this farm for many years, states that a great many of such carvings were destroyed about fifty years ago, when the surrounding stone dykes were built from the quarry here;’ (ibid 157)
So it is likely without archaeological intervention the High Bank rock art may have been destroyed completely by now. Hamilton explains:
‘The Lady Isabella Hope, of St Mary’s Isle, who is proprietor of this farm, has kindly consented to allow this part of the field to be stripped of turf,…‘
Hamilton portrays the same panel of rock art as in Coles but explain his paper was
‘…illustrated by sketches made for me by an artist friend, Mr E Hornel, of Kirkcudbright‘ (ibid 152)
So not only did Hornel first identify the carvings but he also recorded them.
In a later paper, Hamilton elaborated on the earlier memories of Mr Rigg:
‘and there must have been many more, for to the east of it a quarry has been worked about fifty years ago, to procure stones wherewith to build adjacent dikes, and the tenant, then a boy, but now a hale old man, distinctly remembers carvings like those now described being visible on the surface of the rock quarried.’ (Hamilton 1889, 130)
He also reveals the extent of the exavations:
‘Last autumn we carried out our intentions, and laid bare a large portion of glaciated rock. Towards the centre of the northern side of this knoll, from which we removed a foot and a half of soil and turf, we exposed a great many more of theses sculptings‘ (ibid 125)
The 1889 Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland paper has a series of black and white engravings of the newly discovered rock art
and about which George Hamilton notes:
‘These engravings are made from photographs taken from casts of the portions of sculptured rock-surfaces, obtained with much trouble by Messrs M’Kie, Hornell, and Thomson, members of the Local Natural History and Antiquarian Society. These casts are to be seen in the Local Museum at Kirkcudbright, and in the National Museum of Antiquities, Edinburgh.’
So in the late 19th century, rock art about 5000 years old, was being uncovered, casts of which were made, of which photographs were taken, of which an engraving was produced, which is now represented digitally !
With such a tantalising set of resonances from the past, a road trip was then in order to investigate further. On the way to The Stewarty Museum in Kirkudbright there was good omen that cup and ring marks still resonates with significance to this day
And upon asking about the plaster casts at The Stewarty Museum, I was quickly pointed to:
‘made by early copper prospectors to invoke the help of the sun-god in their search’
And thus I quickly looked outside to see a nest of carved stones sheltering together through the ages: piled up in front of the casts, quern stones and fonts, Medieval cross and prehistoric rock art reworked as architectural elements of later buildings. A glass and steel framed disparate assemblage of esoteric forms revealing : a compelling urge to collect and display over the ages?
Yet, the most elaborate cast slab has been set aside, finding no shelter,
familiar but forlorn.
Behind the cast slabs an inscription with further details :
witness to M’Kie then curator of the museum.
So where did these casts derive ?
Upon hillside with pastoral views
Overlooking sea and routeway.
Situated in a changing world, alive with movements.
With depths of skies and shifts of perspective.
Casts derived from rock,
and its seductive pretense of permanence.
Stone reworked and represented, filling the void of times lost.
Five thousand year old forms, copied and transformed.
In the library of Broughton House, the residence of Hornel in Kirkcudbright, there are letters which reveal another dimension to this trajectory. Twenty seven letters written to Hornel by artist and archaeologist (or is it archaeologist and artist) F R Coles – replies missing – provide a one sided insight to a friendship hungry for discovery and portrayal, a glimpse of hobbied obsessions and tentative grasps at Druid spectres.
In a letter of 2 May 1887 Coles writes to Hornel
‘I was up yesterday at High Banks rock and saw traces of your spadework‘
It is also clear then that prior to producing paintings incorporating cup-and-ring marks, not only had Hornel been exploring the Galloway hills searching for exposed rock outcrops bearing prehistoric rock art but when discovered had been illustrating them too. In the case of High Banks, he had also been excavating to uncover more rock art panels : very much then artist as archaeologist.
In the same letter to Hornel, F R Coles sketches three cupmarks in the corner, a simple trace of his artistic background, and in the earlier letters refers to cup-and-ring is markings written in full.
Not much later F R Coles would move to Edinburgh where he was Assistant Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland from 1897 to 1911. Five years since the original discovery at High Banks, letters from F R Coles (now as archaeologist) continued to Hornel.
They reveal another dimension of the ways in which cup-and-ring markings were being portayed by F R Coles, rather than written in full he uses shorthand symbols for cup-and-ring markings. No other abbreviation, or short hand is evident for long or frequently used phrases, only the archaeological subject is reduced : a form of categorical abstraction only too regularly used in the work of the archaeologist.
The mark of the archaeologist is, for many, the excavation trench : a theatrical arena which temporarily opens the veil between past and present. Powerful indeed then that the presencing of the rock art at High Banks was through Hornel’s spade work, without which they would never have been revealed and transformed – cast, photographed, engraved, digitised – (re)presented through the ages.
Yet ironically, it is the artists striking imagery of the Druids or the Brownie inhabiting the moonscapes of Galloway, which more actively invites us to dwell in the same landscapes as the rock art may have emerged in – 5000 years ago when it was produced, even then a place thick with myths and legends.
Paradoxically, a richness of cultural expression, copied and transformed, can also be reduced by an archaeologist to the simple potency of
. & o
Many thanks to Denise Briggs (The Stewarty Museum), Sarah Jackson and Sheila Faichney (NTS, Broughton House) for helping with my investigations.
The phrase ‘They are the faults of archaeology rather than art‘ derives from a review in the Glasgow Herald (20th Feb, 1892) of the 1891 painting Summer which was particularly poorly received in some quarters of the press when first shown in public (Quoted in Smith 2010.)
In fairness, F R Coles was engaged in archaeological practice at a time when there was an overwhelming need to identify and record archaeology. His work stands out at the time for his large number of illustrations of sites which he recorded effectively in no small part through his skills as an artist.
Hornel the artist (informed by the visceral experiences of landscape and archaeology) produced The Druids which, despite its power as a painting, may actually appeal to a limited audience. In contrast, the simple abstraction to . & o by F R Coles, in part anticipated later scholars views that cup-and-ring marks were potentially very powerful as it is their very simplicity of form which allows multiple meanings and interpretations.
The image of The Brownie of Blednoch is from the BBC
More information about High Banks can be found at RCAHMS Canmore site.
Coles, F R 1888 ‘The recent Cup and Ring Mark Discoveries in Kirkcudbrightshire. (Abridged.)’ Trans Dum Gal Nat His Antiq Soc 5, 41 – 52.
Coles, F R 1895 ‘A record of the cup- and ring-markings in the stewarty of Kirkcudbright’ Proc Soc Antiq Scot 29, 67-91.
Hamilton, G 1887 ‘Notices of rock-sculpturings of cups and circles in Kirkcudbrightshire’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 21, 157-8.
Hamilton, G 1889 ‘Notice of additional groups of carvings of cups and circles on rock surfaces at High Banks, Kirkcudbrightshire’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 23, 125-30.
Hartrick, A S 1939 A Painter’s Pilgrimage Through Fifty Years. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P.
Smith, B 2010 Hornel. The Life and Works of Edward Atkinson Hornel. Atelier Books: Edinburgh.