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A History of Creativity in Dorset

In celebration of Dorset's artistic inspirations, Harriet O'Brien, the author of our Guide to Dorset's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, provides a history of Dorset’s creativity.

Dorset has for centuries been an inspiration to writers and artists. Photo: Diana Jarvis/Greentraveller

From its captivating villages looking cosy under thatch to its spectacularly weathered and craggy stretches of coast, Dorset has for centuries been a huge inspiration to writers and artists.

Most famously, of course, Thomas Hardy’s novels and poems exude a tremendous sense of place. In The Return of the Native (1878) fictional Egdon Heath is a primeval, brooding presence that in reality was an imaginatively enlarged version of Black Heath adjacent to the author’s birthplace at Higher Bockhampton. In the Woodlanders (1887) Little Hintock and surrounds are based on Minterne Magna and its outlying groves and coppices, in the very heart of the county. While Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) opens with a lyrical evocation of northern Dorset’s Vale of Blackmore, ‘an engirdled and secluded region’ protected by hills and ‘tinged with azure’.

The gloriously varied range of other authors and poets stirred by Dorset’s scenery include William and Dorothy Wordsworth who, in the 1790s, spent two years living at Racedown House in the shadow of west Dorset’s Pilsdon Pen hill fort. A couple of decades later Jane Austen’s Persuasion was posthumously published (1817). It features the author’s most dramatic scene, which takes place in Lyme Regis on the Cobb, the town’s old harbour wall. The Cobb was also an iconic element in John Fowles’ 1969 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman – and in the 1981 film of the book. Elsewhere Dorset was seminal for the poet William Barnes (1801-1886); T E Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia, 1888-1935) who lived, and wrote, near Wareham; John Meade Falkner (1858-1932) whose smugglers’ tale Moonfleet is set in the real village of that name; Enid Blyton (1897-1968) who took her family on holiday to the Dorset coast in the 1930s, 40s and 50s – and based Toytown on Studland; Ian McEwan whose 2007 novel On Chesil Beach was shortlisted for the Booker Prize - and so the list goes on.

Lulworth Cove, Dorset. Photo: Diana Jarvis/Greentraveller

Meantime the impact of Dorset’s landscape on artists has been profound – and this was the focus of a great celebration orchestrated by the Dorset AONB in first half of 2014. Drawing Inspiration was a programme of exhibitions, talks and events about Dorset’s outstanding scenery and its significance for artists. It paid homage to an impressive variety of painters, printmakers, etchers and more from Turner in the 18th/19th century to Elizabeth Armsden who worked in and around Studland in the mid 1900s. As part of the celebration nine walking trails were devised taking in views and sights that artists have painted over the centuries and these can be downloaded (free) from the website of the Dorset AONB. The walks include a circular route from Worth Matravers featuring the downs painted by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (c. 1920) and the coast at Winspit that inspired Percival Arthur Wise in the mid 1900s; while in the far west a three-mile round trail from Lambert’s Hill includes Fishpond, painted by Lucien Pissarro in 1915.

Dorset AONB's downloadable walks include a circular route from Worth Matravers featuring the downs painted by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the coast at Winspit that inspired Percival Arthur Wise in the mid 1900s. Photo: Diana Jarvis/Greentraveller

Works of Dorset artists can of course be seen in the county’s museums. Dorset County Museum in Dorchester contains a remarkable collection of several thousand watercolours by Henry Joseph Moule (1825-1904), the first curator of the museum and a friend of Thomas Hardy. Other Dorset artists shown here include Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734) and the sculptor Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993). Meanwhile Bournemouth’s Russell Cotes gallery includes paintings by Philip Leslie Moffat Ward (1888-1978), and at Poole Museum you’ll see works by Arthur Hanson Knight and Eustace Nash, working in the early 20th century.

Dorset Country Museum. Photo: PR

It almost goes without saying that Dorset continues to attract and inspire artists. Beautifully set in a 17th-century building in Corfe Castle village, Gallery at 41 is dedicated to showing the works of Dorset painters, potters and jewellery makers – the likes of landscape artists David Atkins and Vicky Finding. Or head to Bridport’s West Bay where Sladers Yard is housed in an 18th-century rope warehouse. This makes a terrific setting for the British art and furniture that the gallery showcases, including paintings by Dorset artists Boo Mallinson and Brian Graham. Other Dorset galleries include Quarr Gallery in Swanage and the thriving Bridport Arts Centre with its lively programme of performance art as well as exhibitions.

For a great synthesis of landscape, poetry and art take a hike along the Wessex Ridgeway. Dorset poet James Crowden walked this route and composed works inspired by his journey. These verses were then integrated into sculptures that are now dotted along the way. But unless you want to take on the entire 62 miles of the trail you’ll need to be selective about your trip: the sculptures are at Ashmore, Ringmoor, Melcombe Horsey, Minterne Parva, Maiden Newton, the Kingcombe Centre, Beaminster, Pilsdon Pen and Lyme Regis.

Of course there is much else to see – and do. Favourites for families include The Smuggler’s Trail on Stonebarrow Hill near the Golden Cap. It’s a walk of about a mile during which you can take brass rubbings from special posts and listen to a smuggler’s tale (freely downloadable from the website above). Meantime every two years in September Dorset and its landscape are celebrated in a great outdoor arts festival. Inside Out Dorset stages its events in inspiring Dorset locations and in 2014 one of its most spectacular shows will be along part of the South Dorset Ridgeway.

>> For more information (and inspiration!):

Words by Harriet O'Brien


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