View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Henry Gyles 1646–1709
Date not known
Red chalk on paper
84 x 217 mm
Inscribed in ink top left ‘Stonedge’; in ink bottom right ‘Stone henge by Mr. Henry Gyles. H.G’
Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
… ; Ralph Thoresby; … ; acquired by A.P. Oppé in November/December 1924; by family descent until bought Tate Gallery.
British-born Artists of the Seventeenth Century, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London, 1938, no.74.
Royal Academy, London, 1958, no.123.
The son of a York glazier, Gyles was principally a glass painter, ‘the famousest painter of glass perhaps in the world’ as described by his friend, the antiquarian Ralph Thoresby, the first owner of this drawing.1 Both Gyles and Thoresby were members of the ‘York virtuosi’, a group of intellectuals and friends who met at Gyles’s house in Mickelgate, York. As well as Gyles and Thoresby, it included the physician and naturalist Martin Lister, the antiquarians Thomas Kirke and Miles Gale, and the artists Francis Place, William Lodge and John Lambert. They formed close working associations. Lodge, for example, produced illustrations for Lister’s articles for the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, and Place illustrated Lister and Kirke’s Johannes Godartius of insects (1682) as well as Thoresby’s great topographical work Ducatus Leodiensis (1715).2 Through his London contacts Place frequently sought commissions for Gyles and his London print publisher, Pierce Tempest, provided Gyles with Flemish, Dutch and German prints which he drew on for the design of his painted glass windows.3
Several of the York virtuosi are recorded undertaking sketching tours. A trip by Gyles to the south of England, and to Wiltshire to view the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge, is not recorded, but the subject matter would have been close to the hearts of his antiquarian friends. The origins and purpose of Stonehenge had puzzled scholars over the centuries. In his topographical survey of Britain, Britannia (1586), the eminent Elizabethan historian William Camden concluded that the ‘monstrous rude stones’ had been magicked from Ireland by Merlin. A more rational proposition was offered by Inigo Jones, who surveyed the site on the instructions of James I: Stonehenge, he said, was a Tuscan Roman temple to the god Coelus. His thesis was published posthumously in 1655 but refuted in 1663 by Dr Walter Charleton who, in Chorea Gigantum, considered it more likely that the stones were the remains of a great palace of the Danes. By the time Gyles was sketching Stonehenge the most up-to-date theory concerning its origins was that of John Aubrey, who advanced the notion that both Stonehenge and Avebury were ancient centres of the Druids.4
Gyles’s view, roughly sketched and blocked in in red chalk, seems to have been taken on the spot or to have been worked up from a sketch made on the spot. The light source is very definitely from the left, the backs of the large stone uprights, which cast long shadows, plunged into shade. The reason for Gyles’s sketch, beyond the personal interest of an enquiring tourist, is not known. Antiquarians often hired artists to accompany them on their surveying tours, or to prepare finished drawings from their amateur sketches to illustrate their publications, but this drawing does not seem to have such links. The subject of Stonehenge would certainly have appealed, however, to the antiquarian interests of Ralph Thoresby, the drawing’s first recorded owner and in whose handwriting the inscriptions appear to be. Thoresby’s large and celebrated collection contained a vast array of natural and artificial curiosities, including plants, shells, fossils and bones as well as coins and medals, ancient and antique relics and drawings and books. A catalogue of the Musaeum Thoresbyanum had been added to his 1715 Ducatis Leodiensis, and another was published on his death in 1725. Stonehenge would have taken its place in the collection alongside Gyles’s catalogued ‘draughts for glass painting’, as well as his crayon portrait and Place’s mezzotint of Gyles which were also owned by Thoresby. Thoresby’s son inherited the collection, which was sold on his death in 1764 over three days. This work seems to have remained with a number of other works from Thoresby’s museum, including a cartoon tracing of the head of Henry VIII (Tate T10679) and figure sketches attributed to Dr Hooke (Tate T10678). On the latter is inscribed: ‘in this collection are drawings by the noted Mr Hollar, Mr Kent, Dr Hooke, Dr Cay and Mr Henry Gyles’s for Window Limnings &c’. The painted glass designs were presented to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, by A.P. Oppé in 1928.