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Alternative views: Exploring ‘icons’ of the Hadrian’s Wall landscape

In the aftermath of the felling of the famous tree at Sycamore Gap, David Breeze examines how artistic interest in different sections of Hadrian’s Wall has changed over the centuries.


The tree at Sycamore Gap has been cut down in an appalling act of vandalism, but it is not the only ‘iconic’ view of Hadrian’s Wall to have suffered damage during the Roman frontier’s more recent history – nor is it unique in having captured the imagination to such a degree.

In the second half of the 19th century, the favoured sector of Hadrian’s Wall was at Walltown, seven miles further west. When John Hodgson, doyen of Hadrian’s Wall studies and author of A History of Northumberland, published his fourth volume in 1840, he included a long footnote on the Wall, which was illustrated by drawings (specially prepared by William Collard) showing the state of the surviving Wall in the Walltown area. This was only the beginning, however: it was the stimulus provided by John Collingwood Bruce, the great interpreter of Hadrian’s Wall in the second half of that century, that led to the creation of several paintings and drawings of Walltown.

http://www.bridgemanimages.com Henry Burdon Richardson’s painting of Walltown, looking east, which he created while accompanying John Collingwood Bruce on his tour of Hadrian’s Wall in 1848. For much of the 19th century, this stretch of the frontier fortifications was the most favoured by artists. Image: Laing Art Gallery Newcastle

In 1848, Bruce – a schoolmaster in Newcastle – undertook a tour of Hadrian’s Wall with his son Gainsford and his groom William, as well as the two drawing masters at his school, Charles and Henry Burdon Richardson. During this trip, Henry undertook about four dozen drawings of the Wall, which were given a colour wash over the following winter. One of his views was of Walltown Crags, which he described as: ‘The Wall as it is seen going eastward over the Nine Nicks of Thirlwall [dramatic geological features created by glacial activity at the end of the last Ice Age].’

Bruce, however, did not use this painting in his book on Hadrian’s Wall published three years later. This was The Roman Wall, the first of six books on Hadrian’s Wall that Bruce was to write and revise over the following 35 years. He chose several views drawn by Henry Richardson to help illustrate it, but these were reproduced either as engravings or woodcuts; Bruce clearly did not consider Henry’s depiction of Walltown as special enough to warrant an engraving, so it appeared as a woodcut. John Storey, another Newcastle painter, was employed to create the engravings, and it is likely that it was Storey who produced the woodcut of Walltown at Bruce’s request. This view is still recognisable today, with the rock to the right, the Wall following a twisting path as it crosses the landscape, and the peak of Mucklebank Crag visible in the background. What can also be seen is the tongue of land to the left – in the shade – that was later quarried away.

Woodcut of Walltown, from Bruce’s The Roman Wall, probably by John Storey. Image: Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne 

Artistic interest

In spite of Bruce’s lukewarm attitude to Walltown, its landscape attracted the attention of many artists over the following years. Some of their identities have been lost to us: for example, in 1851 this stretch of Wall was drawn by an anonymous visitor who created several views of the area – in spite of intensive investigations, we are still unable to identify them. Others, however, are better known: when John Collingwood Bruce published the second edition of his Hand-book to the Roman Wall in 1884, he included a new engraving of Walltown Crags by Charles J Spence, one of several commissioned by Bruce for this version of his now-famous guide. There is also the Edinburgh-born painter David Mossman (1825-1901), who created several paintings of Hadrian’s Wall, including a watercolour of Walltown which he donated to Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in 1893.

Numerous artists captured views of Walltown during the  19th century, including this image by an anonymous visitor  in 1851 (above), and Charles J Spence’s depiction (below), commissioned for Bruce’s Hand-book to the Roman Wall in 1884. Images: Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne 

These are but a selection of the depictions of Walltown Crags created in the 19th century. It is interesting to compare them with each other, and with the Wall today; some, including Mossman’s watercolour, exaggerate the landscape features, but all nevertheless relate more or less approximately to the Wall’s present appearance. This section of the frontier, however, fell out of favour with artists when quarrying started in 1876. This activity continued until 1976, when workable reserves of the stone were exhausted, and had a dramatic effect on the landscape: by this time, the number of the Nicks of Thirlwall had been reduced from nine to six.

David Mossman’s depiction of Walltown, produced c.1880-1890. Image: Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery

Aesthetic evolution

Walltown Crags’ successor as the most popular view of a section of Hadrian’s Wall was that at Cuddy’s Crags, just to the west of Housesteads Roman Fort. It had not been painted by Henry Burdon Richardson in 1848, and Bruce only mentions these crags in passing in his magisterial third edition of The Roman Wall, published in 1867, but by the 1930s its place in antiquarian and artistic affections was undeniable. In his ninth edition of the Handbook to the Roman Wall, R G Collingwood used a photograph of Cuddy’s Crags, taken by the famous local photographer John P Gibson, as his frontispiece. And there it remained up to Ian Richmond’s 12th edition of the Handbook, published in 1966. As the 20th century progressed, this new ‘iconic’ view was the delight of artists such as Geoffrey Cowton of Bradford, who created an attractive image of the crags. Nor was it just an act of pietas that led Mark Richards, Peter Savin, and myself to place Mark’s pen-and-ink drawing of Cuddy’s Crags on the cover of our Hadrian’s Wall: a journey through time – it was a genuine appreciation of this as one of the Wall’s most celebrated views.

After Walltown was damaged by a century of quarrying, Cuddy’s Crags took over as the most ‘iconic’ view of the Wall. Popular through the 20th century, its depictions include this drawing by Mark Richards, which appeared on the cover of Hadrian’s Wall: a journey through time in 2009. Image: Mark Richards

Walltown was not forgotten, however. It should come as no surprise that in 1959 Alan Sorrell chose the view looking eastwards at Walltown as the basis for his own artist’s impression of Hadrian’s Wall. The character of the Wall stands out so well in this landscape. Sorrell, though, created his view of the frontier line as he could see it, not knowing, or perhaps accepting, that a chunk of it – that tongue of land visible in the 19th-century paintings – had been quarried away. This omission does not detract from the drama of Sorrell’s arresting impression, and it is also no surprise that his children, Julia and Mark, chose this image for the cover of their book on their father, Alan Sorrell: the man who created Roman Britain (see CA 285 for more on Sorrell’s work).

Judith Yarrow’s painting of Walltown Crags, showing the quarry face upper left, featured on a postcard during the 2019 Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall. Image: Judith Yarrow

Fashions change. It was the appearance of the Sycamore Gap tree in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that led to its rise to becoming the view of Hadrian’s Wall. But the earlier ‘iconic’ images of Rome’s famous frontier have not been forgotten, and another will doubtless come to the fore. Mark Richards and I recently invited some 50 colleagues to write about, and provide an illustration of, their favourite place on Hadrian’s Wall, and the resulting book will be released by Archaeopress in the new year. An understanding of the changing ‘iconic’ views of Hadrian’s Wall may offer a crumb of comfort to today’s visitors as they look at the empty space that was Sycamore Gap.

Back to the beginning: John Collingwood Bruce with his son, and (to the left) Charles and Henry Burdon Richardson and William, the groom. Images from their tour popularised views of Walltown Crags. Image: Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives
Further reading
• David J Breeze (2022) ‘Death by quarrying’, in N Hodgson and B Griffiths (eds) Roman Frontier Archaeology – in Britain and Beyond, Archaeopress, ISBN 978-1803273440.
• David J Breeze, Mark Richards, and Peter Savin (2009) Hadrian’s Wall: journey through time, Bookcase, ISBN 978-1912181261.
• Julia Sorrell and Mark Sorrell (2018) Alan Sorrell: the man who created Roman Britain, Oxbow, ISBN 978-1785707407.