Paint Freedom: Celebrating the story of Dorset’s Tolpuddle Tree

Published: 11 November 2019

Last update: 11 November 2019

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This blog post is written by Dr Kate Bethune, Curator, Bath Assembly Rooms and Purbeck Estate Dr Kate Bethune Curator, Bath Assembly Rooms and Purbeck Estate
The artist Bob and Roberta Smith walks through the forest of placards at Tolpuddle

Kate Bethune, one of our regional curators in the South West, works on many different projects throughout the year, across lots of different properties. One of her favourites this year was part of our national People's Landscapes programme of events, celebrating the role that the places we care for have played in social change. Paint Freedom, a community art project, was held at one of the smallest locations we look after, the Tolpuddle Tree in Dorset.

One of the things I love most about working as a curator for the National Trust is the incredible variety of places I work with. From grand country estates like Kingston Lacy, to the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle, each one holds special stories about people and places.

This year, I worked with the North and West Dorset team to celebrate one of the smallest places in our care: the 320-year-old Tolpuddle Tree in the quiet Dorset village of the same name. The tree is one of 50 sites participating in People’s Landscapes, a year-long programme of exhibitions and events exploring places where people gathered to make their voices heard and bring about change.

Why Tolpuddle?

The Tolpuddle Tree, a 320-year-old sycamore, was selected for the People’s Landscapes programme because of its connection with the six agricultural labourers who became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

In 1834, following the third pay cut in a year, these men met under the tree to discuss campaigning for better wages. They decided to form a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers and swear an oath of secrecy to it. It was a crime for which they were tried and sentenced to seven years’ exportation to Australia.

History remembers these men as the Tolpuddle Martyrs who, in making their voices heard, helped to bring about positive change for workers’ rights.

Art tells a story

As part of the People’s Landscapes commission, four locations were paired with a contemporary artist to share their story. At Tolpuddle we were matched with leading British artist Bob and Roberta Smith.

It was the perfect pairing. Bob, who sees art as a form of campaigning, frequently explores the idea of art as a basic human right. Part of my role as curator was to share the significance of the Tolpuddle Tree with Bob, so that he could develop his creative approach.

He came up with the idea for Paint Freedom, a brilliant community art project that connected the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs with people today who have had their freedoms oppressed because of their work, beliefs or creative practice. For Bob, the parallels between the Martyrs’ harsh sentence of deportation and the censoring and imprisonment of modern-day artists, journalists, poets and musicians are striking. 

Paintings produced for community art project led by Bob and Roberta Smith
Paintings produced for community art project led by Bob and Roberta Smith Smith
Paintings produced for community art project led by Bob and Roberta Smith

Paint Freedom

GCSE art students from two local schools, Wey Valley Academy in Weymouth and Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester, painted their own modern ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’. These included Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian and Mala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education who was shot for speaking publicly about girls’ right to learn.

One of the modern ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ was Mehdi Rajabian, a musician imprisoned in Iran in 2015 for pursuing illegal musical activities
Painting of Mehdi Rajabian
One of the modern ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ was Mehdi Rajabian, a musician imprisoned in Iran in 2015 for pursuing illegal musical activities

But it was images of two people I hadn’t heard of before that hit me the hardest: those of Zehra Doğan and Elzbieta Podleśna.

Zehra, a Kurdish artist and journalist, was imprisoned in 2017 for her watercolour painting in which she painted Turkish flags on buildings in a Kurdish district that had been destroyed by Turkish forces. In the eyes of the government, her artwork linked her to terrorism.

Elzbieta, a Polish psychotherapist and activist, was threatened with two years in prison for ‘offending religious beliefs’ after police found a poster of the Virgin Mary in which she was depicted wearing a halo in the rainbow colours of the LGBTQ pride flag.

I must admit that I felt ashamed that I didn’t know who these people were until I saw their paintings under the tree. I was grateful to have learned about Zehra and Elzbieta through the students’ artwork, but at the same time sad to realise that for each Zehra and Elzbieta hundreds of others could have been depicted in their place. It made me reflect that positive change sometimes can be slow.

Painting under the Tolpuddle Tree

Bob invited members of the public and schoolchildren to paint with him under the Tolpuddle Tree. Together they created a forest of trees, a metaphor for the power of people coming together to create change. 

Tree painted by one of the participants in the Paint Freedom art project
Painting of a tree
Tree painted by one of the participants in the Paint Freedom art project

The paintings when on display

Paintings under the Tolpuddle Tree

The paintings were first displayed under the Tolpuddle tree during the Tolpuddle Festival (20-21 July 2019).

Paint for Freedom on display at Shire Hall

The paintings were then transferred to Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Dorchester, where they were displayed until 6 September 2019. It was the perfect exhibition venue, for it is where the Martyrs were held before their trial and sentencing, 185 years ago.

Working with the team on the People’s Landscapes commission was a very different experience for me. Often as curators we direct the creative vision for exhibitions and displays. In this instance, we collaborated with an artist and gave them the freedom to do this. It can be hard for organisations (and curators!) to let go of control but, when we do, the results often can have far greater impact than what we would achieve on our own. Paint Freedom is absolutely a case in point.

It’s wonderful that, through the support of national programming, such a small National Trust site was able to tell its BIG story in such an inspiring, powerful and relevant way.

Paint Freedom was a collaboration between the National Trust and artist Bob and Roberta Smith, and in partnership with Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum. The project was supported using public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England, with additional support from Art Fund.

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