A snapshot of rural life

A PAINTING of a traditional village choir – such as Thomas Hardy would have known – has been loaned to Dorset Museum at Dorchester from the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of a major new exhibition.

Hardy’s Wessex – The Landscapes which Inspired a Writer, running from 28th May to 30th October, is a partnership exhibition which spans Dorset, Poole, Salisbury and Wiltshire (Devizes) museums. It tells the story of Dorset’s famous novelist and poet, in the context of the Wessex landscape which shaped his view of the world.

The exhibition will be the largest collection of Hardy objects to be displayed at one time. Each museum will focus on various topics with Dorset Museum focusing on the rural landscapes which inspired Hardy and exploring themes on animal welfare and social tensions.

Thanks to support from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund, each museum will have a ‘star’ loan object. For Dorset Museum this will be A Village Choir, an oil painting by Thomas Webster, depicting a village choir, with the various ‘characters’ who might be found there, and who are found in Hardy’s novels, particularly Far from the Madding Crowd and Under the Greenwood Tree.

Created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, the Weston Loan Programme is the first ever UK-wide funding scheme to enable smaller and local authority museums to borrow works of art and artefacts from national collections.

Sophia Weston, a trustee of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said: “This exhibition on one of our most celebrated Victorian writers is a wonderful example of what the Weston Loan Programme sets out to do – we are so pleased to be able to support the display of such special objects in the places that inspired, and were reflected in, Hardy’s work.”

Dorset Museum’s interim director, Elizabeth Selby, said: “The involvement of Hardy’s family in the local village church choir was extremely important in his upbringing and influenced his work, most importantly the novel Under the Greenwood Tree. The inclusion of this painting in the Dorset Museum section of the exhibition gives a wonderful flavour of the rural landscape in which Hardy grew up.’

Harriet Still, curator of the exhibition for Wessex Museums, describes A Village Choir as “a snapshot of rural life, capturing the typical local ‘characters’ found in Hardy’s writing.”

At Salisbury Museum, there will be a strong focus on Hardy’s links with the city and the urban landscape, as well as his views on religion and feminism.

Throughout his writing career he filled his novels with unconventional women, such as the headstrong Bathsheba Everdene and the tragic Tess D’Urberville – many the very opposite of what might be expected of the genteel Victorian woman. Hardy brings empathy and understanding to our view of these women, some of whom have been rejected by society.

Hardy’s sisters both attended a teacher training college in the Kings House in Salisbury Cathedral Close, now home to Salisbury Museum. The college also inspired an episode in Jude the Obscure, one of the original manuscripts in the exhibition.

Pictured: A Village Choir by Thomas Webster, 1847 © The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.