Take a group of creative people passionate about landscape and drop them in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Leave to steep for a day and what do you get?
This week Open Country is exploring the inspiration of landscape, in this case, Cranborne Chase in Dorset - the "venerable tract of forestland" in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. On the uplands of Down Farm, Helen Mark meets up with four artists whose work is all inspired by the landscape in some way.
One is a poet, who's fascinated by the multi-layered habitation of landscape and this chimes in with a painter's obsession with Mesolithic landscape, a ceramicist's ancient/modern pots, and a craftswoman and writer's appreciation of the creative relationship with space.
Together they roam around for a day, each one selecting something from their time there possibly to be used in future artistic endeavours.
The Chase itself is a rolling chalkland landscape, with sheep scattering the uplands and mainly arable farming taking place in the valleys. The market towns of Shaftesbury, Blandford Forum, Wimborne and Warminster surround the Chase like a necklace.
Cranborne Chase & West Wiltshire Downs AONB
Dorset Downs and Cranborne Chase
It's an area rich in archaeology - there's evidence of hunter-gatherers living here and also Mesolithic activity in the area. But the Chase is littered with evidence of Neolithic and Bronze-Age sites, including the Dorset Cursus, a place with many potential explanations but often thought to have been used for the exposure of the dead as part of burial rituals.
At Down Farm, Helen meets up with Martin Green, whose land it is. It's a small family farm in the heart of the Chase, run under a Countryside Stewardship scheme re-establishing the classic chalk Downland habitat rich in flora and fauna. The farm's crop is hay, and the grazing of sheep and other naturally occurring wildlife provides nutrients for the thin soil. Part of the Dorset Cursus itself sweeps through the area and archaeological finds are numerous - the ground is covered with evidence of human activity, particularly in the prehistoric period.
Martin's had a passionate interest in archaeology since boyhood and has undertaken a number of excavations over the last decades, and he's received several awards for the work done on the farm. He's got so involved in the history of the site that he wrote A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 years on a chalkland farm and jointly authored with Richard Bradley and John Barrett Landscape, Monuments and Society - the prehistory of Cranborne Chase. And he's opened a museum with displays of local archaeological finds, a small rural life collection and geological specimens mainly from the Dorset coast.
Brian Graham is a landscape artist who draws great inspiration from the land around Down Farm. At first sight his work looks abstract, concerned purely with colour and form. But it's not. His paintings are deeply rooted in place, terrain and settlement, based on extensive knowledge, exploration and re-examination of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites. The paintings may start from sketches, from the stimulus of finds or found objects or trial pieces. Often when he starts a piece, he's no idea where the paint will lead him, and titles often come right at the end. He has particular fondness for the colour red - the colour of passion, he says, and not at all out of place in the British landscape. Above all, "inherent mystery" is an essential phrase in Brian Graham's language He says, "I'd like people to have the same sort of feeling about my pieces as when they look at something old - very precious and delicate and mysterious - behind glass in the British Museum."
Paul Hyland is a poet and travel writer who met up with Martin, Chris and Vivienne through Brian Graham, who was a fan of his work. They met when a Cambridge gallery asked Paul to do a reading at the launch of an exhibition of Purbeck artists - and they discovered they were actually brought up at the same time in Poole! The poems that came out of his collaboration with Brian are published in his book Art of the Impossible. Places he's concentrated on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset (his first love) and the Isle of Wight, East Cleveland, Congo and the Congo River, Andhra Pradesh and the Godavari, Iberia and the Tagus, but he has real kinship with the Dorset landscape where he was born and to which he has returned.
Vivienne Light was born in West Dorset and now lives in the New Forest. She spent 20 years teaching music and art, but since the late 1980s has also practiced as an artist. Her interest has always been in mixed media, with a more recent emphasis on hand-made paper. She has made a portfolio of papers made from British plants, including: willow catkins, bluebells etc, all collected from her New Forest garden. In 2001, with designer Sarah Jane Jackson, she set up Canterton Books, specialising in art and ceramic publications. She's currently working on a book about painters and artists who live/have lived on Cranborne Chase - from Augustus John to Salvador Dali.
Chris Carter's the stranger to the group, hailing from Warwickshire. His personal involvement with farming and the landscape give him a special empathy with landscapes like this. He's a genuine "son of the soil" who has worked the land for a living and who still works with some of the substance of that "land" to make his vessels. Within the many layers of his unique glazes, that are first built up and then partially taken back with abrasion and multiple firings, there is contained a search for the essence of an ancient landscape and for the shadows of its creators. These gleanings, so passionately sought, reveal themselves only gradually, like flint artefacts occasionally turned up by the plough.
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