Visit Avebury

The standing stones of Avebury and their setting never fail to excite. This is as true today as it was in the 17th C when John Aubrey claimed, “Avebury doth exceed Stonehenge as a Cathedral does a Parish Church.” Sir Christopher Wren thought it looks like a sacred grove of trees “built in stone on a grand scale as a temple”. Many would agree, but its true purpose remains a mystery, which makes it fascinating for artists and writers. 

The first of these was the Rev & Dr William Stukeley whose drawings from 1720-24 gave evocative views but exaggerated views. The first photographic study came in 1895 when Guy Underhill, a grocer from Oxford, created a lantern show of painted photographs with which he toured England. Perhaps strangest effect Avebury ever had on a visitor was in 1913 when Edith Oliver, a writer and Lady Mayoress of Wilton, claimed to have driven down an avenue of stones that wasn’t there. Decades later she returned to meet Alexander Keiller and was said to have aided his excavations by “sensing” nine buried stones.

 Paul Nash came in 1933 to photograph, sketch and write ‘The great stones in their wild state are wonderful and disquieting. The patina of golden lichen enhanced their strange forms and mystical significance. I will learn painting here… Archeologists should be banned from this place.’ John Piper came with Nash and did several paintings, and their friend John Betjeman wrote, “On a still moonlit night Avebury seems peopled by ghosts, and the old church and cottages of the village seem new and insignificant.”
But Avebury had suffered since Aubrey first recorded 73 standing stones. Fifty years later Stukeley found 29.  By 1810 Sir Richard Colt Hoare could only illustrate only 17; and in 1920 there were just 11 above ground. This explains why in 1933 Robert Byron, author of the Shell County Guide to Wiltshire wrote: ‘Avebury is a ghost’. But it revived with Alexander Keiller’s excavations, after which Bill Brandt came in 1944 to photograph the newly raised “Barber- Surgeon” stone                                                                                                                                                  

                                               The "Barber-Surgeon" stone                            




It is worth noting that few of these artists ever showed people in here, apart from Stukeley, who used figures to make the stones appear larger.  In the same romantic spirit, master photographers Fay Godwin and John Caponegro showed Avebury with cows and sheep but no humans. And the “Ruralist Brotherhood” painter David Inshaw, who found inspiration for a dozen or more paintings here, showed only one person, preferring to depict it with flying birds to hint at its sense of closeness to nature.

                                             The Sentinal stone


Today thousands of photographs are made every week, and the best of these tend to show natural atmospheric effects. Susanna Bailey, an artist who has lived in the village for the past ten years, runs master classes for painters in the village hall. The work of these artists seems to prove that Avebury always enlarges imaginations.