A FICTIONAL area of Thomas Hardy's Wessex has inspired an exhibition of paintings.

The Great Heath: recent paintings by Brian Graham can be seen at Sladers Yard in West Bay from Saturday, March 16 to Bank Holiday Monday May 6.

Brian will also give a talk in conversation with Professor Simon Olding on Friday April 26 at 6.30pm

The exhibition explores the ‘Great Heath’ of memory, imagination, literature and music.

Inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath from The Return of the Native, and taking many of their titles from Hardy, the paintings revisit places which fired Brian's imagination as a child.

Brian's powerful textured emotional paintings lie in the borderland between abstraction and the figurative where he has always thrived.

For many years his paintings have focussed on imagining, exploring and celebrating the archaeology of Palaeolithic human remains in particular places in Britain.

Brian's most recent solo exhibition at Salisbury Museum and then Southampton University, Towards Music, explored the evolution of music and dance in paintings related to 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 in the early 1900s, 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 his novels. The Mayor of Casterbridge and the short story The Withered Arm also visit the heath with dramatic results.

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’s fascination is with the mysterious brooding atmosphere of these ancient places.

Many of them still remain just as he remembers them from his childhood.

Now in his seventies, the artist is returning to the starting point of his lifelong fascination with the traces of early human life in this area.

While keeping the awareness of its ‘great swarthy vastness’, the Great Heath paintings are based on specific places on the heath, where Graham is able to feel his way back, just as he did as an imaginative child, to life as it was for those early peoples.

Layered on top of that is Hardy’s vision, Holst’s music and the emotions these places stir in him now.

The resulting ambiguous moody paintings in deeply textured rich earth colours explore light and feeling with a thorough visceral enjoyment of paint.

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 across the country as well as many times in London. Acclaimed by archaeologists and enthusiastic patrons alike, his works have been collected by major institutions across the UK and USA.

*Brian Graham exhibition, Sladers Yard, West Bay, Saturday, March 16 to Bank Holiday Monday May 6.

Talk in conversation with Professor Simon Olding on Friday April 26 at 6.30pm. Tickets for the talk and dinner afterwards are available from Sladers Yard at £10 or £28 with a sit-down buffet dinner to follow the talk. All work can be viewed and bought on www.sladersyard.co.uk