IN F CUSO
Uf fi ng ton’s wonder horse
Examining Britain’s earliest hill-figure above Artist Anna Dillon's dreamy depiction of the Uffington White Horse in the frost captures the sense of wonder that has surrounded this Bronze Age hill figure for centuries.
Dating back more than 2,000 years, the distinctive outline of a white horse that crowns a hill near Uffington, in Oxfordshire, has been the subject of fascination for centuries. David Miles explores changing attitudes towards, and interpretations of, this enigmatic hill figure.
Alate 12th-century manuscript De Mirabilibus Britanniae lists 35 ‘Wonders of Britain’. Along with Stonehenge, the Rollright Stones, and the Giant’s Causeway, the scribe also singles out the White Horse at Uffington, telling us that it is wonderful because ‘over the whole place where that image of the horse is, no grass may grow… always there the earth is bare to the full extent of the horse’.
The list’s anonymous author seems to regard the hill-figure as unnatural,
showing no interest in its origin, nor any sense that it is the work of human beings – least of all that local people must regularly have come together to care for this fragile creature. But for the modern reader this manuscript, together with surviving royal and monastic charters of local estates, confirm that the White Horse of Uffington is ancient. It is the dame or sire of the many other hill-figures that mark hillsides from Dorset to Yorkshire and Scotland, and the Uffington example is also the most distinctive. Sinuous and segmented, it seems to flow over the Berkshire Downs. Paul Nash, the consummate artist of the English Downland, claimed it as our earliest drawing (not quite accurately, given the discoveries of Palaeolithic cave art at Cresswell Crags – see CA 197), hailing it as ‘a piece of design also in another category from the rest of the great chalk figures, for it has the lineament of a work of art… an affair of violent foreshortenings or tapering perspectives’. This sense of wonder is nothing new.
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: Anna D
Marginal marvels In their fascinating book Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750, Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park describe medieval wonders as clustered ‘at the margins rather than at the centre of the known world… the preternatural,