When it comes to ancient circles of stone, few engage the imagination like Stonehenge. The 17th-century antiquary, John Aubrey, admittedly did compare it unfavourably with the even older circle at Avebury (saying that in ''grandeur'' the one as much exceeded the other ''as a Cathedral doth an ordinary Parish Church''). But Stonehenge has survived more successfully the ravages of time and the plunderings of farmers and builders in search of building stone, to become today a permanently popular focus for sightseeing, archaeological speculation, photography, and even self-conscious ceremonies at midsummer's eve.
Above all, Stonehenge has for a long time stirred a combined sense of awe and deep puzzlement in writers and painters. Thomas Hardy was fascinated by it. Keats, picking up a persuasive myth, characterized it as ''a dismal cirque of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor.'' And many lesser poets have found the pre-Roman remains irresistible.
The painter John Constable found in it an elemental mixture of ruin and gloom to suit the almost heroic moroseness of his later work. And J.M.W. Turner went to extremes: he depicted it barely withstanding the throes of an electric storm, the somewhat rearranged trilithons standing amid lightning-struck sheep and a shepherd, whose dog howls its bereavement to the callous, tumultuous sky. When he put his mind to it, J.M.W. Turner had quite a taste for desperate melodrama.
In their different ways these major artists and writers were drawn to Stonehenge as an instance of the ''sublime.'' Although it was man made, its geographical isolation and historical remoteness, together with the size of its stones, made it conceivably a source of aesthetic terror and wonder, no less sublime than such natural phenomena as mountains, chasms and waterfalls. In the case of Stonehenge, however, it was realized by most painters that the very flatness and bleakness of Salisbury Plain contributed greatly to its sublimity, and also allowed for the painting of an expressively high skyscape and immeasurably wide horizon.
Minor painters before J. M. W. Turner and Constable had tended to paint it as factual topography, as nothing much more than a stone quarry. Possibly William Turner of Oxford (no relation of the renowned Turner), if he had painted the monument before his two remarkable contemporaries had, would probably have produced a merely tame, if accomplished, watercolour of the subject. As it is, for all its careful finish and patient statement, the painting shows he was aware of the other Turner's version, and probably of the Constable as well (exhibited in London in 1836, only a few years before). But he wasn't overwhelmed by them.
What he has captured so well is that strange quietness that sometimes precedes a gathering storm. The clouds amass heavily, and distant rain begins to pour, but in the foreground weird, illusively stilled contrasts of sunlight and dark shadow transform everything into a kind of intense immediacy. William Turner has skillfully used the width and flatness of the plain, the elongated shadows and the obliviously grazing sheep to emphasize the temporary tranquillity. Even the shepherd seems contemplative and untroubled. But the circle of stones itself appears almost startled in the vivid play of dark and light.
William Turner has not overlooked the ''sublime'' in his subject, but at the same time preserves a kind of propriety in the face of it. Perhaps this was a matter of temperament; possibly a lack of adventurousness. Both Constable and Turner knew how to let themselves go; William Turner evidently could not, or did not choose to, forgo his stylistic restraints. And yet his painting of Stonehenge has a kind of veracity which the more unstinting, and clearly greater , artists had partly to abandon for the sake of overtly forceful drama.