Monday 17 April 2023

Chalk Figures

England has a sizeable collection of chalk figures incised on the nation’s hillsides.  Born of the enduring desire to leave a mark on the landscape, especially in areas where an underlying layer of chalk can easily be exposed. Horses greatly outnumber human figures and only one, the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire is accepted by all authorities as being of ancient origin.  There’s no agreement on the age of Uffington - Bronze Age, Romano-British and Early Modern are among existing theories.  Best known of the human figures are the Wilmington Long Man in East Sussex and the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset.  The Long Man, grasping his two staves was a popular subject for postcards while the Cerne Abbas Giant disqualified himself from this role by publicly exhibiting his abnormal state of arousal.  The earliest recorded date for the Long Man is 1710 which makes him either a lot older or much younger than the Cerne Abbas Giant according to which of the many competing theories you subscribe to.  Some speculate that the Long Man originally sported male genitalia and that at some time in the past they were removed in the name of public decency.  If he had been spared this fate then his postcard career would never have begun.  The majority of chalk figures date from the last 250 years.  The Westbury White Horse is recorded as having been restored in 1778 to its present contours but there’s no reliable evidence of the existence of an earlier figure.  King George III was a frequent visitor to Weymouth, boosting its profile as a holiday resort in the process and in 1808 the grateful citizens had his equestrian figure inscribed on a nearby hillside at the village of Osmington. Eric Ravilious was one of several artists from the interwar years who took a fresh look at the English landscape and the ways in which it was formed by human intervention.  Chalk figures made repeat appearances in his work and included those at Westbury, Wilmington and Osmington to great effect.


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