Brian Graham on the Great Heath

ONE of the region’s finest painters, Brian Graham, returns to Sladers Yard at West Bay until Monday 6th May with a new collection of paintings, The Great Heath.

This magnificent exhibition explores Dorset’s Great Heath, a place that exists in reality, memory, imagination, music and literature, most famously Thomas Hardy.

Inspired by Hardy’s Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, and taking many of their titles from Hardy, the paintings revisit mysterious, ancient places which fired Brian Graham’s imagination as a child. Powerful and emotional, the paintings lie in the borderland between abstraction and the figurative which is very much the artist’s territory.

For many years Brian Graham’s paintings have focussed on imagining, exploring and celebrating the archaeology of palaeolithic human remains in particular places in Britain. Towards Music, his most recent solo exhibition at Salisbury Museum and Southampton University, was a moving examination of the evolution of music and dance in paintings inspired or influenced by specific pieces of classical music and their composers.

The Great Heath is a semi-fictional area of wilderness between Dorchester, Wareham and Poole, bordering on both Hardy’s cottage and Brian Graham’s childhood home on the outskirts of Poole. An area of gravel, sands and clay, now much broken up by roads and overgrown with trees and scrub, the ancient River Solent flowed over this area and evidence of early human activity could go back half a million years.

By its very nature, heathland is a ‘cultural landscape’ which means it is created and maintained by man. The Great Heath was gradually cleared from Neolithic times through to the Bronze Age when the numerous tumuli were built including the Rainbarrows where The Return of the Native is set.

By Hardy’s time, the heath was already broken up but people still lived there, grazing animals and cutting the furze or gorse for firewood. Hardy creates a much larger unspoilt wilderness in The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge and the short story The Withered Arm. The Frome valley, where most of Tess of the d’Urbervilles takes place, is at its northern border.

After Hardy drove Gustav Holst around the heath in his motorcar and walked with him there, Holst wrote the brooding Egdon Heath: A Homage to Thomas Hardy, which he later considered his most perfectly realised composition. Hardy accepted the dedication of the piece in the summer of 1927 but its premiere in New York was three weeks after his death in 1928.

A sentence from The Return of the Native remains part of the notes for the score: “A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!”

Never suitable for cultivation, the Great Heath retains its mystery. Hardy’s descriptions of it are often cited as examples of his ability to use landscape to reflect the human condition. Like the heath in Shakespeare’s King Lear it is, for Hardy and for Brian Graham, a place where grand passions could be let loose and hearts stripped bare.

Since people stopped clearing the heath, it has become overgrown and partly wooded. The Dorset Heathland Project – a partnership of organisations including the RSPB, the National Trust and the Dorset Wildlife Trust – has been cutting the scrub and felling inappropriately planted conifers since the 1990s in order to restore an area of the heath which includes the Rainbarrows.

Brian Graham has an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from Bournemouth University where he has worked as a consultant. His work has been exhibited in county, city and national museums, and many times in London. Acclaimed by archaeologists and enthusiastic patrons alike, his paintings are in many major institutions across the UK and USA, including London’s Natural History Museum, The National Museum of Wales, Cardiff and the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

During the exhibition, there will be an evening talk with Brian Graham and Professor Simon Olding on Friday 26th April at 6.30pm.

For more information on the exhibition and Sladers Yard’s programme of exhibitions, talks and concerts, visit

Pictured: Haggard Egdon; Behind the scene is wilder; Brian Graham, photograph by Robert Field.