Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Cerne Abbas Giant in Pictures

Frank Dobson, The Giant, Cerne Abbas, 1931 (copyright Frank Dobson estate)
I came across this fabulous picture illustrating a review of Alexandra Harris's book 'Romantic Moderns' in The Art Newspaper. I particularly like the cloud preserving the giant's modesty and can imagine the conversations between the artist and Shell's advertising supremo Jack Beddington that led to its addition. Actually, it's the shadow cast by a cloud that conceals the celebrated phallus, which is surely a physical impossibility.

The point is, though, that Beddington thought this glorious chalk figure too good to leave out when he was commissioning the paintings of British landmarks that were supposed to encourage motorists to buy Shell products. Antiquaries and tourists had been visiting Cerne Abbas since the 18th century, if not earlier, although depictions of the figure were not necessarily true to life.

Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, The Giant, Cerne Abbas, 1790

On the southern declivity of a steep chalk hill, called Trendle Hill, to the north of the town, a gigantic figure has been traced, representing a man holding a knotted club in his right hand, and extending his left arm; it is one hundred and eighty feet high, and well executed; the outlines are two feet broad, and two feet deep; between the legs is an illegible inscription, and above, the date 748: it is by some antiquaries referred to the Saxon times, and supposed to represent one of their deities; by others it is thought to be a memorial of Cenric, son of Cuthred, King of the West Saxons, who was slain in battle; and according to vulgar tradition, it was cut to commemorate the destruction of a giant who ravaged that part of the country, and was killed by the peasants: the figure is occasionally repaired by the inhabitants of the town. (Samuel Lewis' 'A Topographical Dictionary of England', Vol. I, [1831])

Images of the giant were not hard to come by in the 1930s, when numerous postcards carried its photograph. The increasingly widespread use of aerial photography offered a new perspective, which artists may have exploited to give a clearer view of the figure... Paul Nash made watercolour sketches of the giant before the war, while he was researching 'The Shell Guide to Dorset', and during the conflict.

Paul Nash, The Cerne Abbas Giant, 1935

Eric Ravilious, meanwhile, gave the figure a martial air in his painting, made during a whirlwind visit in December 1939. His version, incidentally, may allude to a different kind of censorship. The people who covered over the white chalk outline of the giant at the start of World War II were not concerned with modesty; their aim was to prevent the pilots and navigators of the Luftwaffe using the distinctive figure as a landmark.

Eric Ravilious, The Cerne Abbas Giant, 1939 (private collection)


Post-war, the Cerne Giant has been restored to his full glory, and artists have returned to paint this strange personage. While his image is better known than ever before, the giant's history remains murky. It seems unlikely that he is, as past historians used to surmise, a Roman tribute to Hercules, or even a Saxon homage to some long-forgotten deity. Medieval writers were as keen on oddities as we are nowadays, and though the White Horse of Uffington was often described - as a wonder almost as great as Stonehenge - the giant is not mentioned until after the Civil War. Who first carved out this unforgettable shape, and why, we may never know.*

David Inshaw, Cerne Giant (copyright David Inshaw)

 *May 2021: well we now know it was carved in the 10th century, so that's the when sorted out. Just need to work on the why and the who.


  1. I just checked my late friend Leslie Grinsell's book Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, and there is no mention of the Cerne Abbas Giant - just an "earthwork enclosure" called the Frying Pan, above the giant on Trendle Hill. Which suggests to me that Leslie at least was not convinced that the giant was older than the C17th. As for the convenient cloud, is it really impossible? I can imagine a perfectly-shaped cloud momentarily occluding the offending parts.

  2. I think you're quite right about the date, Neil, although it doesn't help us decide WHY anyone created the figure... Or the Wilmington Giant, for that matter, although there was definitely a vogue for carving white horses in the mid-18th century when the Hanoverians took over the monarchy (the white horse being their symbol). As for the cloud, perhaps it was just a fortunate meteorological moment!

  3. Yet it looks so ancient. Perhaps we'll never know. I suspect all your readers have bought Romantic Moderns already, but if not they should certainly do so.

  4. the first all-england tennis champion ?

  5. I didn't think the chalk hill figures were covered over until early in 1940 to prevent them being used as landmarks, so I don't understand why Ravilious painted the Cerne Abbas Giant in brown. In fact the Dulwich exhibition catalogue states: "The following year [i.e. 1940, the year after the painting was made] saw a mass turfing-over of chalk figures, to prevent enemy airmen using them as landmarks."

  6. You're quite right Roy, the figure was turfed over in 1940. The colouring here is artistic licence, I think to give the giant a more warlike air - compare this painting to 'Wilmington Giant' and you can see that it is wilder - violent, even.

  7. Actually, the Giant IS brown at times due to the covering of lichens and moss that quickly (within months of it being scoured) grow on the exposed chalk of the Giant's outline.