One of the less sung victims of war was a snail.
In the early days of the Second World War, a crack team of camouflagers were sent to a remote hill in rural Berkshire with a task of great national importance. They were to paint over the ancient White Horse of Uffington. Enemy bomber crews might use the site to navigate their death flights. The brilliant white of horse, cleaned for centuries by the local community, was covered for the six years of war.
At the end of the conflict, it was brought forth again. But the white Uffington Horse snail has been made extinct. It survived on exposed white chalky rock, of which the Horse was a rare example.
The White Horse
The White Horse of Uffington is a powerful image. Nearly 400 feet long, the stylised horse, arrests the view. Sitting a top the natural hills of the Berkshire Downs on White Horse Hill, it could be seen along the old Icknield Way. Behind it is Dragon Hill and the Iron Age hlllfort of Uffington Castle.
In The Land of the White Horse, the renowned archaeologist David Miles explores the history of the White Horse in a discursive and fascinating book.
The White Horse has gathered a bevy of legends around it. For some, it was the symbol of the Icenii tribe (native to modern day Norfolk). For many years, one of the most popular origin stories of the horse was that it was put up by King Alfred in celebration of his victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown in 871 CE.
Alfred became a paragon of the muscular Christianity championed in England’s public schools and especially Rugby by the pedagogue Thomas Arnold. One of his disciples, The author Thomas Hughes, grew up in Uffington. He organised a cleaning of the White Horse in 1857 and based his follow up to the massively popular Tom Brown’s Schooldays on the event. A curious combination of archaeology, romance and politics, The Scouring of the White Horse was not as successful.
Each period has its own origin myths, which favour the ideology of the time. Scientific testing has provided evidence that the White Horse in fact dates from the late Bronze Age, which Miles suggests might be more precisely dated to about 750 – 650 BCE based on dates of the neighbouring hill fort.
The Uffington White Horse looks ancient and modern. The abstracted lines look back to the cave paintings of Lascaux and art of the twentieth century. The horse is disembodied with thick and sensuous lines, now stark white against the variegated green of the hill. It is barely a horse and yet it moves and gambols as freely as any horse in art history. Even the celebrated Whistlejacket of Stubbs looks rigid compared to the White Horse.
There is the key different however. Whistlejacket was a thoroughbred, with the blood of faster Arabian horses flowing in his veins. We might imagine the White Horse to be of the same build, but the horses of the Celts were more likely to be of stockier builds (as wild horses tend to be).
The modern horse was first bred in Central Asia, initially for food (meat and milk) and then as a source of transport. Evidence for domesticated horses in Britain date from about 2,000 BCE. By the Roman conquest, British tribes could call on thousands of chariots.
Art and the White Horse
The White Horse has inspired several writers. Alongside Hughes, special mention must go to GK Chesterton whose 2,684 line epic poem ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ about the Battle of Edington is now little read. Chesterton is an interesting thinker – a conservative radical, catholic who opposed capitalism. He was a divisive figure and has been accused of anti-semitism. He is the type of writer, who might be quoted in parliament by a certain type of politician, hoping to look bookish.
Perhaps, the best known of the several visual artists who have been inspired by the White Horse was Eric Ravilious. His watercolour of the White Horse is an emotionally charged reading of landscape and deep time. A virtuso in dry painting, the white of the canvas peaks through the paint as chalk on a hill might do. The eye is drawn upwards to the horse galloping across the crest of the hill, only half visible.
Ravilious was fascinated by prehistoric Britain and hill figures. (As Miles points out many hill figures were made much later). He designed a book on White Horses, which was put on hold following his death in conflict in 1942. It has been republished by Design for the Day, with additions from the artist Alice Pattullo.
The 1930s saw an explosion in artists fascinated in the history and landscapes of Britain. Romantic Moderns, by Alexandria Harris, has done much to rehabilitate these artists. Paul Nash, John Piper and Barbara Hepworth all experimented with the shapes of Bronze and Iron Age Britain. Alan Sorrell and David Jones could both be associated with this movement as well.
The thirties were a difficult period against the background of unemployment, facism and war. Paintings of the past are not hiding away from this reality, but draw something from the solidity of ancient ways to challenge the new.
In A Canterbury Tale by Powell and Pressburger, three characters seek and find forms of redemption in a small village untouched by modernity. It is not a film about the White Horse itself, but fits into the model which Miles identifies. Although they don’t know it, the characters are on a pilgrimage, an ancient way-stage of the Pilgrim’s Road. On their final arrival in Canterbury, they each receive a form of grace.
The film was released during the Second World War. The lives of the three characters are affected by the war, but release from conflict is not their redemption. Rather they are given strength to carry on in the present, by the intangible power of place.
In his study of the White Horse- it’s long history, it’s repeated rediscoveries and recoveries – it is not the White Horse, David Miles describes but us. It is not a book of the past but of today. It has became apt that we have closed museums and sites in our own war against Covid-19, and return to something far older for comfort.
The past is where people can think and recreate future possibilities.