Under the Cedar Tree
24th July - 4th October 2022
Athelhampton Road, Dorchester
Dorset DT2 7LG
The manor at Athelhampton was recorded in the Domesday Book as being held by Aethelric. Centuries after 1086, Athelhampton enjoyed Tudor prosperity with the construction of the Great Hall, but Reformation, Civil War, a wicked Regency owner and World Wars followed. The House and its Gardens now are recognised as one of the most important Stately Homes in the south of England. Today, Athelhampton is propelled into the twenty first century with its ambitious Carbon Zero objectives, which will protect the Tudor house for generations to come. Despite having so many stories to tell, Athelhampton still has many mysteries concealed within its walls!
The abstract paintings in this exhibition explore the significance of Athelhampton today and attempt to capture the atmosphere of this historical site in a contemporary, twenty-first century manner. The artist, Belinda Smith, has found inspiration in certain features of the house, such as the splendid plaster ceilings, fireplace carvings and stained glass windows, in addition to the separate sections of the Gardens which include The Corona, The Great Court and the Private Garden as well as the Lion’s Mouth.
Athelhampton’s unique arrangement of picturesque pleasure gardens were the vision of landscape architect Francis Inigo Thomas (1865 - 1950). In 1891 he was commissioned by the then-owner of Athelhampton, Alfred Cart de Lafontaine, to design gardens reflecting the popular tastes of the time; namely that ancient manor houses, particularly with Tudor influence, held inherent value worthy of restoration and preservation. Although the Gardens have seen numerous changes since the last century, visitors can still appreciate much of Inigo Thomas’ original style which both compliments and draws imagination from the architectural features of Athelhampton House itself.
Although Belinda’s paintings may not physically represent or capture the appearance of the gardens or of rooms of the house, they offer a contemporary viewfinder on some of the stories that shape the identity of the estate. A number of paintings reference different historical characters and how they have either found inspiration from or left their personal stamp on Athelhampton over the years. Several artworks are even dedicated to previous owners and residents.
The paintings in this exhibition are located throughout the estate and encourage visitors to further explore the gardens and lesser-known parts of the house. Starting in the Great Chamber visitors can see side by side a painting of the pyramidal yews of the Great Court by the artist Marevna and Belinda’s abstract interpretation of her cubist style. Upon exit of the Great Chamber, visitors may take the Spiral Staircase to the left. Follow the trail of paintings to the very top!
Up on the Second Floor Landing visitors can see two paintings inspired by Athelhampton’s Regency owners. In the Long Attic Gallery, the room to the left at the top of the stairs, paintings and framed drawings influenced by the estate’s history are on display. A group of four paintings in the Small Attic Gallery at the other end of the landing are dedicated to the Martyn sisters.
Outside in the Gardens, the two Pavilions of the Great Court feature large scale paintings inspired by the changing of the seasons. Meanwhile, artworks in the Kitchen Garden Glasshouse explore Inigo Thomas’ frequent use of the pyramidal shape - a theme of particular significance this year in the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Additionally, framed Athelhampton Miniatures are displayed in the gift shop.
In these paintings I have searched for connections between the Gardens and some of the history of Athelhampton. As such, the shapes and forms employed by Inigo Thomas have taken on new meanings and relationships with one another.
In the painting Stone Crown Elegy the Jacobean inspired shapes of the Corona Garden merge with the format of a historical, coded letter to draw attention to the fate of Chidiock Tichbourne. The paintings de Lafontaine’s Fountain: I-III reflect the shape of the Great Court’s central pond and investigate this gentleman’s enigmatic identity. The Lion’s Mouth garden finds itself the centrepiece of Tresco Lion, a painting relating to 15th century armour and the tales of Hercules. The pyramidal forms frequently found in the Gardens are angled in a selection of artworks so as to reach beyond the estate’s integration. Referencing the Martyn effigies at Puddletown, the Pyramidal Pilgrim artworks are on display in the Kitchen Garden Glasshouse. Reminiscent of ancient Egyptian tombs, Mayan and Cambodian Temples and the Argolis Pyramids of Greece, these artworks are also linked to paintings by Marevna and the prose of Thomas Hardy, a good friend of de Lafontaine, and whose initials can be found on the lintel of the culver dovecote.
I have not tried to rewrite history in these paintings but to find a thread of connectivity running between the present and this ‘Seated Old Relic’. This thread has undoubtedly crossed over many paths and this is perhaps the very value of abstract painting. Unlike a photograph which captures a singular moment in time, an abstract painting enables many connections to be made within a storyline. It offers a chance to hold onto a moment from the past in a physically tangible way whilst referencing topical concerns of the world of today. We come, often on holiday - enjoying our free time - to view historical homes and all their mystery and majesty. The tradition of painting is malleable enough to interpret these histories in the context of today’s myriad concerns; from climate change, the ecological crisis, the destruction of Nature, the often frightening effects of mass-consumption, exponential population growth, disease and war to the fictitious dangers and paradoxical benefits of our Digital Age. Indeed, the storyline of the Martyns has not ended with their departure from Athelhampton, but provides the very backdrop of historical house and garden.
The unique opportunity of being able to exhibit these paintings upon the very walls which provided their inspiration - whether it be a person, a stained glass window or the feeling of a restless spirit - adds to this thread of connectivity. When I first visited Athelhampton I knew it was a house still breathing, still living, as much alive inside as the Gardens are outside. I think it is only through paint that this can be celebrated and communicated. Even if not all aspects of the estate’s history and previous residents are known today, painting lends itself very well in the search to discover those questions which may not have full or complete answers. The estate does not always reveal its true self and it is through this withheld, or unrequited gift, that so many continue to find delight and enjoyment in visiting Athelhampton House and Gardens.