Dorset Art Weeks – from The Sherborne to a historic garden

DORSET punches well above its relatively light weight in terms of both food and art, with some of the region’s best food festivals and fairs and one of the country’s longest established and biggest art weeks. This year, from 25th May to 9th June, will be the first full Dorset Art Weeks event since 2018, before the pandemic. It marks the official launch of the county’s new visual arts centre and the return of a full programme of activities including workshops, talks, demonstrations, have-a-go and other events to excite and engage audiences.

There are 500 artists – painters, potters, textile artists, photographers, sculptors and other makers – exhibiting at more than 260 venues, from individual studios to beautiful gardens and grand historic buildings, demonstrating the depth and wealth of talent working across Dorset. The colourful and informative brochure has details of all venues and participants, and maps of the six different areas – North West (Venues 1-31), West (32-115), South (116-169), Purbeck (170-187), East (188-217) and North East (218-266).

One of the highlights of the 2024 DAW is the exhibition Housework at The Sherborne (Venue 1). The former Sherborne House is famous for the murals by Sir James Thornhill, the Dorset-born painter who was also responsible for large-scale schemes of murals, including the “Painted Hall” at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, and paintings on the inside of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The Georgian Grade I listed mansion has variously been a school, arts centre and, from 1851-60, the home of the great actor-manager William MacReady (1793-1873), arguably the greatest Shakespearean actor of the Victorian age, who was one of Dickens’s closest friends.

Housework, an installation with photography, textiles and painting, has been curated by artist Amanda Wallwork. It will weave together elements of the previous incarnations of the 18th century house and its new life as the home to an evolving programme of cultural activities. Artists featured in Housework include the late Dame Elisabeth Frink, as well as Jenni Cadman, Karen Hitchlock, Stig Evans, Jane Burden, Tim Burrough, Kirsten Cooke and Amanda Wallwork.

Dorset Art Works’ headline sponsor is the Blandford-based family brewery Hall & Woodhouse, so it’s no surprise that the Brewery Tap (Venue 223) in the historic brewery building is housing an exciting DAW event. The brewery artists in residence exhibition will feature work by the two artists, Charlotte Beare and Jack Dickson. The theme of their Dorset Visual Arts residency and commission is reflections on the life of the 250-year old company and its staff. Work created on site and back in the artists’ studios will be on show upstairs at the bar throughout the festival.

Other special events and exhibitions include The Instinct of Hope, artists responding to the climate emergency, at the Fine Foundation Gallery at Durlston Country Park (Venue 173), and The Ground Beneath Us, at the Top Floor Studio (Venue 58), The Old Timber Yard, West Bay, with participating artists responding to the theme of Extraction – Art on the Edge of the Abyss. On Sunday 26th May, furniture designer John Makepeace and his wife Jenny have an open day at Farrs, their beautiful historic house and garden in Beaminster. The house has many examples of John’s work, including prototype designs, while the famous gardens include Jenny’s colourful potager and other features.

John Makepeace has a special place in the history of Dorset Art Weeks. Now one of the country’s leading open studios events, DAW began nearly 35 years ago with a letter from John to some influential people suggesting that an event in which artists opened their studios would not only benefit the artists but attract visitors to Dorset. At the time he was running his renowned college of furniture design at Parnham House, Beaminster, where he regularly hosted leading cultural figures, including Peter Hall and Norman Foster, and recognised what a great impression Dorset made on them. There was a similar open studios event in Oxford, but the great university city was a very different proposition from rural Dorset.

One of the recipients of the letter was then county librarian and arts officer Carl Earl who talked to the county’s new arts development officer Jo Morland. She contacted local artists who were unanimously enthusiastic – the result was the first Dorset Art Week (actually nine days) in May 1992.

Since that first successful event, DAW has grown with more artists taking part every biennial festival. John Makepeace’s guess that it would attract visitors was proved to be absolutely right – the lure of meeting artists in their own studios and workshops, often along picturesque lanes and in hidden valleys, the excitement of exploration, the pleasure of village pubs and shops have all contributed to the development of an event that now brings more than £2 million to Dorset.

Dorset Art Weeks now runs under the auspices of Dorset Visual Arts, a not-for-profit organisation and registered charity with a membership of more than 300 artists, designers and makers who live and, or practice in Dorset. DVA’s activities recognise that artists have different interests and needs in developing their work and careers, yet are often left to find their way in isolation, particularly in a mainly rural county.

DVA currently runs three project groups focused on professional development – The Interrogating, Salon and Emerging artist project groups facilitate connections between artists with different areas of critical focus. The biennial Dorset Art Weeks is the flagship event, but there are now plans for a new ‘interval year’ event from 2025 as well as other activities such as residencies, workshops, network meetings and get togethers.

Pictured: The Dorset Art Weeks logo
A Dorset Holloway by Rachel Sargent at the Fine Foundation Gallery (Venue 173)

A silver etched bowl, “Star,” by contemporary silverware designer Karina Gill, who is exhibiting with sculptor Jamie Hart at the Pavilion, Hazelbury Bryan (Venue 263).

The Hall & Woodhouse logo on the wall of the Brewery Tap

Part of the Thornhill murals in Sherborne House, now reborn as The Sherborne, an exciting new visual arts venue for Dorset

A sculpture by Jane Burden, one of the exhibits in Housework, the major Dorset Art Weeks exhibition at The Sherborne

Dorset Coast, by Katie Scorgie, the equestrian artist who is opening her studio at Hinton St Mary for Dorset Art Weeks