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Whilst it is not surprising that the striking chalk horse near Uffington and the atmospheric stone monuments at Avebury have caught the eyes of artists, the chalk cross on Whiteleaf Hill has also inspired famous artists including the renowned war artists Paul Nash and John Nash. Read on below to find out more….

Banner image credit Anna Dillon.

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) is known for a number of watercolour paintings of chalk figures such as the Wilmington Giant, Westbury Horse and Uffington White Horse. (Click on the names of paintings to see them!). Now owned by the Tate Gallery, Ravilious painted the chalk horse along The Ridgeway near Uffington, Oxfordshire in 1939 as part of a commission to produce a Puffin Picture Book for children about the chalk downs and white horses. However, Ravilious’ disappearance during World War II whilst on a mission to Iceland brought the project to a close until 2010 when a surprise discovery of his ‘dummy’ version was made. The ‘dummy’ is now owned by Wiltshire Museum and a book was published in its honour in 2019.

Ravilious is one of three prominent war artists associated with The Ridgeway; the others being the brothers Paul and John Nash. In fact, Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) was teacher to Ravilious at the Royal College of Arts. One of the most renowned paintings of World War I called ‘Over the Top’ (1918) was created by John Nash (1893 – 1977) after he saw trench warfare first-hand. After the war, his painting at Grange Farm in Great Kimble, Buckinghamshire along The Ridgeway has been described by the Tate Gallery as ‘characterised by a sense of bleak desolation that suggests the profound introspection that for many followed the devastation of the war’.

After the war, John and Paul Nash painted several scenes along The Ridgeway around Whiteleaf, Buckinghamshire including Whiteleaf Cross (see image gallery above), Whiteleaf Woods (see image gallery above), Whiteleaf chalkpits and Kop Hill. John lived at ‘The Other Cottage’ in the village whilst Paul would stay at the village pub The Red Lion when visiting his brother – he even painted the scene behind the pub!

Further afield, Paul Nash produced paintings at both ends of The Ridgeway.Wood on the Downs’ portrays a beech clump near Ivinghoe Beacon, Buckinghamshire, which Nash described as ‘an enchanted place in the hills, girdled by wild beech woods dense and lonely places where you might meet anything from a polecat to a dryad‘.  He also produced several works inspired by the prehistoric stone monuments and Silbury Hill near Avebury, Wiltshire. Paul gifted one of his Avebury paintings to his friend Stuart Piggott, a leading archaeologist working at Avebury at the time. In fact, Paul’s first visit to Avebury was a creative turning point for him:

My interest began with the discovery of Avebury megaliths when I was staying at Marlborough in the Summer of 1933. The great stones were then in their wild state, so to speak. Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in the cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were always wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them then, I shall always remember them …  Their colouring and pattern, their patina of golden lichen, all enhanced their strange forms and mystical significance. Thereafter, I hunted stones, by the seashore, on the downs, in the furrows. 

Paul Nash was intrigued by ancient places and referred to their sense of place or mystery as their ‘genius loci’. As well as Avebury, another ‘genius loci’ for Paul was the pair of low hills known as the Wittenham Clumps near Didcot, Oxfordshire which can be seen from The Ridgeway. Paintings inspired by Avebury and the Wittenham Clumps convey how such places stirred his interests in abstraction, surrealism and spirituality. Paul also came to see photographs he took as research for his paintings as artworks in themselves. Good examples include the close-up photos of the Uffington chalk horse and also his photos of arrangements of collected flints which influenced paintings where he made these flints appear like the Avebury sarsen stones.

John Nash, meanwhile, was drawn more towards plants and nature and this was an interest shared with another Whiteleaf resident and artist Eric Daglish (1892 – 1966). Daglish was friends with the Nash brothers and as much a naturalist as an artist. He was a skilled wood engraver and both he and John produced artwork for books about identifying British wildflowers. An example of Daglish’s work can be seen here and Nash’s here. Daglish’s images of birds are his most famous works.

The history of wood engraving as an artform owes much to these Whiteleaf artists, with John Nash being a founding member of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920. Another Whiteleaf resident and renowned wood engraver was Clare Leighton (1898 – 1989) who created a striking engraving of Whiteleaf Cross (see image gallery above).

The power of such images in attracting public attention was recognised by Shell in the 1930s when they selected the Nash brothers alongside other leading artists to illustrate their ‘Shilling Guides’ to the countryside. The guides, produced between 1934 and 1984, were made to appeal to the growing number of people owning cars – they cost a shilling and were designed to sit handily in a glove compartment ready for a day out in the countryside. David Gentleman (1930 – ) produced paintings for the guide ‘Berkshire Ridgeway and Icknield Way’. Barbara Jones (1912 – 1978) was assigned ‘Berkshire’ and her front cover design portrays the Uffington White Horse and Wayland Smithy (now in Oxfordshire). Keith Grant (1930 – ) was assigned Wiltshire and his design shows the West Kennett Avenue near Avebury. After World War II, John Betjeman (1906 – 1984) and John Piper (1903 – 1992) were charged with leading the Shilling Guide project, both of whom had connections to The Ridgeway area. Piper, for example, had produced a collage inspired by Avebury in 1936.

More recently, Avebury has attracted another artist famous for ‘The Badminton Game’ owned by the Tate Gallery – David Inshaw. Living in Devizes, Wiltshire, Inshaw has painted Silbury Hill near Avebury, Wiltshire numerous times.

For local landscape artist Anna Dillon, the routeway of The Ridgeway has been her ‘song line’. She has walked the Trail from Ivinghoe to Avebury in order to produce a series of paintings of scenes from The Ridgeway through the seasons.

Today, the annual Swire Ridgeway Arts Prize encourages all artists to seek inspiration along the route and so maintain the strong creative heritage of The Ridgeway corridor. Hundreds of pieces of wall art and sculpture which have been submitted to the competition through the years are available to view online.

Notes: More information about Ridgeway photographers, Ridgeway poets such as John Betjeman, chalk marks and sarsen stones is available in other Top 50 entries.

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