Intense and brooding images of Stonehenge and other prehistoric monuments in a new exhibition are taking visitors deep into the heart of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Wessex’.
The exhibition by three artists at Salisbury Museum mirrors the Dorset author’s emotional response to the archaeological sites he knew and used with such effect in his novels.
His use of landscape was highly symbolic and deeply emotive. Nowhere is that more clear than in his description of Stonehenge, which features in the climactic scene of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
In the dead of night, Tess stumbles upon the monument, and lies down to rest on an ancient altar, giving the allusion of her character as a sacrificial offering to a society that has cast her out. Hardy describes the isolation of the monument on Salisbury Plain, and once inside, the feeling of enclosure.
Symbolism is central to Hardy’s writing, which may be why so many artists use his work as their inspiration.
Artists Dave Gunning, David Inshaw and Rob Pountney have collaborated to show the dramatic landscapes and archaeology in media ranging from charcoal to steel etching and oil paint.
They share a common interest in how Hardy used landscape to symbolise the emotional and physical experiences of his characters.
He revived the Saxon name ‘Wessex’ as a part-real, part-dream landscape, thinly disguising place names so that Salisbury becomes Melchester and Dorchester becomes Casterbridge. Salisbury Plain is sometimes called the “Great Grey Plain”.
Dave Gunning, who was awarded the Year of the Artist Award in 2000-1 by the British Arts Council, has spent more than 25 years studying the prehistoric landscape in the West Country, particularly the ancient monuments within the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge and Avebury.
David Inshaw is one of Britain’s leading contemporary artists. His work is often inspired by literature that takes landscape and nature as its focus.
Rob Pountney has always been fascinated by Thomas Hardy’s work, and says the use of dramatic contrasts of light and shade in his work captures the striking visual aspects of the geological and archaeological features of the Wessex landscape, and his interpretation of Hardy’s response to them.
Salisbury Museum is the perfect place for the exhibition, which opened on Saturday and runs until April 14.
In Jude the Obscure, Hardy bases the college that Sue Bridehead attends on the training college for schoolmistresses that his sisters attended. This was the King’s House, Salisbury, and is now home to the museum.
Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet in the parish of Stinsford to the east of Dorchester.
He became ill with pleurisy in December 1927 and died at Max Gate just after 9pm on January 11, 1928, having dictated his final poem to his wife on his deathbed. The cause of death was cited, on his death certificate, as “cardiac syncope
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