How Thomas Hardy's Wessex lured the Edwardian artists of the Slade

By Richard Moss | 29 February 2016

The Royal West of England Academy is exploring the influence of Thomas Hardy country on the painters of the Slade School of Art between 1880 and 1914

an oil painting of a landscape with sparse trees and big sky
Dorset Heath with Trees (circa 1905). Oil sketch on paper on card© private collection
If Thomas Hardy’s Wessex is one of the best-known geographical areas in British literary history then the attendant paintings that focus on the heart of Hardy’s fictional concept are equally unknown.

A lost chapter in the history of British art, the fin de siecle period in Dorset is one that drew some of the finest talents of the age to the area around Purbeck and Corfe Castle in Dorset, which for a time became an informal mini colony of artists that rivaled Newlyn and St Ives.

Augustus John and Charles Conder were among the many artists - most of whom had some connections with the Slade School of Art - who partied and painted across the Purbeck hills and Swanage.

This hotbed of painting is now being explored at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, where more than 60 artworks, influenced by Hardy's Wessex between 1880 and 1914, are on display.  

According to exhibition curator Gwen Yarker, whose book Inquisitive Eyes: Slade Painters in Edwardian Wessex gives the exhibition its name, Thomas Hardy “looked over the shoulders” of a procession of artists that also included Philip Wilson Steer, , Henry Tonks, Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell - all of them lured by the bucolic, Hardy-esque charms of Dorset. 

Yarker says the great author "actively encouraged" this artistic invasion and keenly reviewed their interpretations of "his" landscapes, even suggesting locations that artists might paint.

Some 300 artists worked in the region during the period 1880 and 1914, many of them roaming the hills around Purbeck, in search of subjects to paint.

For the top landscape painters of the period, the area offered piles of painterly potential, including disused clay, chalk and lime pits, heathland, peninsulas, a remarkable geology and a remoteness from encroaching modernity.

But as well as familiar names, the RWA exhibition introduces some largely forgotten figures of British art who were inspired by Wessex at the turn of the century, such as John Everett (1876-1949), the Dorchester-born painter who was at the centre of a fascinating circle of Slade artists who were captivated by the landscape of Wessex.

Everett was a prolific landscape and maritime artist who also became an Official War Artist during the First World War. He excelled in depicting the shifting effects of light shining through clouds and on the surface of moving water and was a friend of William Orpen, Henry Tonks, Charles Conder and Thomas Hardy.

Together with his larger-than-life mother, Augusta, he introduced many Slade artists and their painter friends to the Dorset landscape.

Augusta Everett’s house, in Fitzroy Street in London, was home to Orpen, Augustus John and others while they studied at the Slade. Her Dorset holiday house in Swanage welcomed Tonks and Steer - then teaching at the Slade - as well as Orpen, John and Charles Conder to enjoy and interpret the Dorset landscape.

A number of the paintings in the exhibition, which resulted from these summer trips, have emerged from private collections for the first time in many years - including from the Everett family - to provide a show of surprises, new discoveries and quite a few important paintings not seen for 100 years. 

John Everett

a painting of a headland with rock outcrop and waves crashing against its side
John Everett, Gad Cliff, Worbarrow Bay (circa 1910). Oil on canvas© Royal Museums Greenwich
Dorchester-born Everett trained at the Slade alongside more famous contemporaries. His mother, Augusta, was an influential figure to a generation of Slade students and introduced Tonks and Steer, as well as Orpen, Augustus John, Charles Conder and their painter friends, to the Dorset landscape. During the 1920s he worked on a painting project to produce aquatints which he later developed into large-scale oils of Dorset places mentioned in Hardy’s novels.

Evelyn Chasten

a painting of a river inlet with hill in the distance
Evelyn Cheston, Creech Barrow, Dorset (1910). Oil on canvas© Manchester City Art Gallery
Former Slade students Charles and Evelyn Cheston rented a house at Studland in 1906. It overlooked the heath with panoramic views of Poole Harbour. Evelyn’s large painting, Creech Barrow, looks over the flooded, disused clay pit of Blue Pool. Relishing Hardy’s descriptions of "every hamlet of cob and thatch", Evelyn wrote of their conscious reading of Hardy’s novels in the evening, painting the landscapes during the day.

Henry Tonks

a panting of two women in Edwardian dress on a country path
Henry Tonks, The Lost Path (1905/6). Oil on canvas© Private Collection
One of the most influential teachers of art in the early 20th century, Tonks was the surgeon who became the Slade Professor of Fine Art from 1918 to 1930. His pupils included David Bomberg, William Orpen, Percy Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer and Rex Whistler. John Everett and his mother Augusta introduced the famously austere Tonks to the wonders of Wessex and his Lost Path painting shows his early debt to Hardy-esque narratives - and Impressionism.

Philip Wilson Steer

a painting of a downland scene with gently undulating hills, hedgerows and cows grazing
Philip Wilson, Steer Moon Rising over the Downs (1908). Oil on canvas© Private collection
Like Tonks, Steer was an influential tutor at the Slade – occupying the Slade Professor of Art seat from 1893 to 1930. He was also a painter of landscapes tempted to Dorset by its bucolic charms - and the hospitality of the Everetts. 

Arthur Friedenson

a painting of a rural cart track with trees bending in the wind
Arthur Friedenson, Breezy Wareham© Private collection
Friedenson arrived in Dorset in 1910 and spent the rest of his life living close to Wareham. A regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy from the age of 17, he showed a number of Dorset subjects at the Royal Academy and New English Arts Club.

Augustus John

a painting of a young woman reclining on an arid hillside next to a blue pool of water
Augustus John, The Blue Pool (1910). Oil on panel© Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museum
John was one of many young Slade artists who lodged with Augusta Everett at Fitzroy Street. On his way to becoming England’s pre-eminent painter of portraits, he made many visits to Swanage and Purbeck with his sister Gwen and painter Charles Conder. With their flamboyant gypsy dress, beards and earrings, he and his friends became a familiar if somewhat unusual sight across the town’s of south Dorset. During the 1920s he also painted two famous Dorset residents, TE Lawrence and Thomas Hardy.

Charles Conder

an oil painting of a sea shoreline with small jetty pier and a person in the sea
Charles Conder, Swanage (1900). Oil on cardboard© Government Art Collection
Australian-born Conder was a bon vivant who undoubtedly enjoyed his trips to Wessex with the similarly inclined John, although the Tate website describes the incorrigible pair’s 1900 trip to Swanage as a “working holiday” and “an escape to sober living and hard work”.

Harry van der Weyden

a painting of large cliffs reflected in the blue of the still sea
Harry van der Weyden, Cliff End Studland (1909-10). Oil on paper on board© Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum
American-born Harry Van der Weyden grew up in London and won a scholarship to the Slade in 1887, where he developed an Impressionistic style. He later moved to Paris and for a time lived at the hotel d’Acary de la Riviere, in Montreuil-sur- Mer, Pas de Calais. After the First World War, during which he worked as camouflage officer with the Royal Engineers, he lived in Rye in East Sussex. His beautiful evocation of the cliff stacks and ocean off Studland Bay was painted between 1909 and 1910 and now resides at the Russel-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth.

Roger Fry

a painting of a curved bay with beach huts, sailing skiff and white cliffs
Roger Fry, Studland Bay, Dorset (1911). Oil on canvas© Rochdale Art Gallery
English painter, eminent critic, art historian and member of the Bloomsbury Group, Fry visited Dorset in the early 1900s with his friends Vanessa and Duncan Bell and Virginnia Woolf. His painting from one such trip to Studland Bay reveals his love of brightly coloured tones and is reminiscent of the Impressionists Gaugin and Cezanne - tempered by a Modernist heavy outline.

  • Inquisitive Eyes: Slade Painters in Edwardian Wessex, 1900-1914 is at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol until June 12 2016. Follow the academy on Twitter @RWABristol and Facebook. The accompanying book is available to buy online.

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