We have to go back to England to look at some ancient white horses which are geoglyphs - a large design or motif produced on the ground. There are many Hill Figures in England but the oldest is the Uffington White Horse which is found on the upper slopes of White Horse Hill in the civil parish of Uffington, Oxfordshire and probably about 3000 years old. It is 110 m long and 40 m high.
The image was actually cut into the turf forming deep trenches filled with crushed white chalk. Remarkably it has been kept in this state for thousands of years by the local communities being dedicated to cutting the turf to maintain the image. Of course many of these images have been lost because this maintenance wasn’t carried out. Here is a close up of its head.
The White Horse of Uffington has a long sleek back, thin disjointed legs, a streaming tail and bird-like beaked head. Unfortunately the best view is from the air but it would be quite marvellous to see it up close.
The origins of the Uffington White Horse are not entirely clear though it is generally believed that it dates from the Iron Age (800 BC–AD 100) or the late Bronze Age (1000–700 BC) supported by the similarity of the horse's design to comparable figures in Celtic art and on Celtic coins such as shown below.
It is possible the original tribe who created the image venerated horses though it has also been suggested that originally it wasn’t intended to be a horse. There is proof however the Uffington White Horse featured in the early life of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (849 – 899) who was born in the Vale of White Horse, not far from Uffington. I found this wonderful drawing to illustrate this point but no details about who was the artist and when it was drawn. Sorry the quality isn't the best.
Excavation in 1990 by Simon Palmer and David Miles of the Oxford Archaeological Unit confirmed deposits of fine silt removed from the horse's 'beak' were scientifically dated to the late Bronze Age,sometime between 1380 and 550 BC. These researchers also discovered the figure was cut into the hill up to a metre deep, not just scratched into the chalk surface.
Last year (Mar 2017) the National Trust reported that a geophysical survey showed the remains of a second stylised figure (360 feet tall) on a nearby hillside which has been christened the * Uffington White Duck.* It is thought that the figure may be the ancient symbol of a local tribe who venerated wild mallards.
I’m very interested in the way art knowledge is passed from one person to another, one group to another. As you have often read in my blog, I make every effort to link art influences to dispel the idea that artists are ensconced in their isolated studios thinking up images in a vacuum. On this note, the Uffington White Horse and those discussed below have inspired a sculpture by Julie Livsey titled White Horse Pacified (1987) and is now part of the West Swindon, Wiltshire Sculpture trail.
A little more than 50 miles away in Wiltshire is another ancient horse geoglyoh-the Westbury or Bratton White Horse considered to be the second oldest white horse in England. It is situated on the escarpment of Salisbury Plain lying just below an Iron Age hill fort. There is evidence for the existence of a chalk horse at Westbury before 1742. This one was restored in 1778.
The Westbury White Horse 55m tall & 52m wide and has been adopted as a symbol for the town of Westbury and the county of Wiltshire as a whole. Some researchers believe that the horse was carved in the early C18th as a symbol of loyalty to the new Protestant Royal Family (the House of Hanover). Here is an idyllic view of the horse making me wish my family had stayed in Wiltshire and I could have gazed upon this glorious scene each day.
There are several white chalk horses in England though their origins are more recent. The Cherhill horse (1780) also in Wiltshire is located east of Cherhill village beneath Oldbury Castle earthwork.
The Marlborough horse (1804) is the smallest such horse in Wiltshire and is special because it was cut in 1804 by boys at Mr Greasley's Academy, also called the High Street Academy, in the Marlborough High Street.
And I want to show you the Osmington White Horse which was cut into the limestone of Osmington Hill just north of Weymouth, Dorset in 1808. This one is special because its the only one to feature a rider, in this case King George 111. The figure is 85m long and 98m high.
To conclude, here is Charlotte Moreton's White Horse (2010) in Solstice Park, Amesbury, Wiltshire inspired by the white horses of Wiltshire.
There other geoglyphs in England including giants, crosses & regimental badges. Most of them are only a few hundred years old.
I have ancestors from both Oxfordshire and Wiltshire who probably would have seen these incredible horse images but sadly I have not. One of my subscribers is off on a tour of England this year so we hope she will see one of these geoglyphs and relay the experience to us.
Where to next? I'm taking a day off tomorrow to perfect the flying gallop and then we are going to tackle something a little more modern.