Growing up in Dorset, the ancient landscape always loomed large over my life. Every trip out, whether walking, catching the school bus or just going to the local shops, involved driving down a Roman road, passing a hill fort, spotting an ancient burial mound or meeting the Devil’s Stone on Black Hill.
Later, as I started walking this landscape, the hill forts of Hambledon Hill, Hod Hill, Badbury Rings and Spetisbury Rings took me back to an imagined world of Asterix and Obelix fighting great battles of independence and liberation.
As a teenager in the late Seventies the tribalism and eccentricity in England seemed to explode, with hundreds of bikers roaring through our village on a Bank holiday, like a huge invading army of Goths, to the Mods, Skinheads and my new adopted brethren the Punks. Some of these tribes were drawn to the Stonehenge Free Festival. Wandering through the makeshift encampment was for me to wander back through the Imperial Roman Empire, with the police in strict formations, uniforms and detachments, stationed around the festival site, peering but not venturing in, as if scared by ancient magic. Inside the encampment, tribes of Hippies, Hells Angels, Punks, Druids and locals circled and swarmed in some strange dance. As you traversed the main drag, which led from ancient burial mounds to Stonehenge itself, you were bombarded with signs for magic potions with such names as White Lightnings, Supermen, Red Dragons and Shroom tea. This seemed to be the last stand for the plucky eccentrics who, like Asterix and Obelix, used stones as symbols of their connection to the earth and the environment around them.
Since then, while travelling through the south west of England, I have always tried to carry Ordnance Survey maps so that I might find stone circles, hill forts and ancient archaeological sites. I have become fascinated by megalithic architecture and its connection with the landscape that it inhabits. Creating Axis Mundi has led me on a pilgrimage through the landscape of our past. The sites, which were built from as long ago as 3,000BC, have no documentation from their creators to illuminate their functions or meanings, so hover in our imaginations as places of magic and mystery. From this, local folk tales have become part of the language that connects the people with the stones. Men-an-Tol, meaning “the hole stone” in Cornish is synonymous with myths involving rituals where locals pass through the stone in order to cure maladies and infertility. Names such as Dorset’s Hellstone describes a burial mound but takes away from its original meaning and says more about Britain’s relationship to its past and a new Christian identity.
One thing is certain whilst visiting these sites: the stones have a powerful presence and a gravity all of their own. Standing beneath the huge monoliths at Avebury they impose an awe of respect resembling that of a celestial body. In some ways the stones not only become monuments and shrines, but statues in their own right. This magnetic connection to a physical body is the same relationship I feel in the presence of Henry Moore’s large-scale abstract figures. His use of huge masses to transform spaces, relationships and recognition encourage the viewer to find meaning in form. The same happens whilst viewing the stones where a burial mound is transformed into a Grey Mare and her Colts on a Dorset hillside, and a Cornish stone circle metamorphoses into Nine Maidens. The forms within my images are transformed into visions of the eternal by the use of the dramatic skyscapes. This echoes John Martin’s expression of religious passion through animated skies to enhance his biblical narratives, such as Joshua commanding the sun to stand still and The Fallen Angels Entering Pandemonium. In Chun Quoit and Trowlesworthy Warren the ambience and drama of Martin’s skies have been re-imagined to enhance the connection the stones make between the Earth and the Heavens.
Even though the eccentric tribes were beaten at the Battle of the Beanfield, and the bureaucratic army of English Heritage has put Stonehenge behind a fence of cream teas and visitor centre car parks, dressed stones still hold an important place within our lives. In death they are used as monuments, from the burial mounds of the ancient to today’s smaller inscribed headstones, which commemorate and venerate past lives. They are the man-made embodiment of the tree with their roots to the earth, their trunks connecting this world to the hereafter. The images that make up Axis Mundi are taken in different locations and at different archaeological sites. However, the meaning is the same, our quest to form a physical and spiritual relationship with our surroundings on Earth to that of the stars and heavens. For me the stones are powerful totems with the ability to transport to magical and imagined worlds. They not only constitute temples in their many manifestations, in circles, eclipses and rows, but individually as guides, evoking personal relationships within their forms. Many of the stones, which once littered the landscape, like an ancient forest, have been removed over the course of the millennia. The ones that remain I want to portray and personalise, to render their likeness and nobility to the wider audience that they once had, as if Kings and Queens of a forgotten age.