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Chiswell Earthworks is a land sculpture, located on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. It is found close to the village of Chiswell and Chesil Beach, at the end of the promenade sea wall, towards West Weares. It was created by John Maine RA, between 1986 and 1993. The Earthworks were one of the Common Ground's New Milestone projects, which encourage the local community to work alongside artists to create a community type sculpture, and with Portland being famous for its stone, the project was designed to respect the local area’s quarrying history, along with highlighting the equally important maritime history.
Being born in 1994, my family lived in Weymouth for the first four years of my life and by 1998, with my mother expecting my brother, we moved to Portland. Moving to Portland was a big change, although it was only five miles from Weymouth. Over the years of my infant and primary school education, I would often spend time down at Chesil Cove with friends, and the nearby play park which was found just up from the Chiswell Earthworks. This large piece of public art was constantly there right before my eyes for many years and yet I never really knew why it was there. I had presumed it was the remains of some old dry stone walls but I never guessed it was actually created as community art. Although certainly not one of the greatest attractions that the Isle of Portland has to offer, the Chiswell Earthworks are still a great sight to see if you happen to visit the local area. This is especially as the surrounding area offers a great view along Chesil Beach.
The Chiswell Earthworks land sculpture was built after a suggestion was made by a Portland local Margaret Somerville, owner of the Chesil Gallery. It would suggested that a sculpture should mark the celebration of the completion of the Chesil sea defences and sewerage system, which had heralded a renewed confidence and revitalisation of the village Chiswell, which was often prone to flooding and sea storms. Somerville had stated "We thought we'd like to have a sculpture made for Chiswell and I didn't know how to go about it at first. Then I heard of Common Ground who had just started their New Milestones project in Dorset so I went to them and said can you help?" As a result, the project became one of the Common Ground's New Milestone projects and was commissioned in 1986 by the Chesil Gallery together with the Portland Town Council. Somerville would work with Common Ground to offer a sculptor's residency during 1987. The project was funded by ARC Southern, The Elephant Trust, The Henry Moore Foundation, The European Year of the Environment, South West Arts, Weymouth & Portland Borough Council, Dorset County Council, the Chesil Gallery and a number of private individuals.
John Maine RA, a sculptor with international reputation, was asked to undertake the commission. This was in part due to the fact that Maine often used Portland stone in his work and would employ Portland masons to assist with his own public commissions. The project followed not long after Maine's completion of Arena, a circular Portland stone sculpture on London's South Bank.
Maine firstly decided on a site for the project, and ended up choosing a grassy area of hillside above the Sea Wall where Chesil Beach ends. Drains were laid to dry out the boggy slop before the drystone walling could commence and in turn this helped retain the unstable coastal hillside. Early designs of the sculpture were shown in Chesil Gallery before being finalised.
Over the following years, five walls were designed to highlight the various strata of Portland quarry beds. The higher walls were constructed of Slat and Topstone, and in descending order, the lower walls were made of stone layers found naturally in Portland quarries, Roach, Whitbed and Basebed. The two top walls were built by a Manpower Services team, under Maine's direction, whilst the lower walls were built by Maine, his student assistants, local volunteers, a Community Programme team and at times a group of Young Offenders from the local YOI (HM Prison Portland). For each type of stone, a different method of working and construction was needed, and this paid homage to the quarrymen, masons and wallers who have worked for generations with Portland stone. Each wall was created to have a wave-like pattern whilst supporting undulating platforms of earth, which was designed to suggest the changing form of the beach as the sea breaks upon it at Chiswell. In relation to the newly created Prudential Art Awards, where Common Ground's New Milestone was shortlisted based on the Chiswell work, BBC2 arts magazine programme The Late Show visited the Chiswell Earthworks during its construction in 1989, to observe the work in progress, and this short documentary was broadcasted around the time.
Many local people believed that the project and sculpture would never see completion. However, an exhibition titled "Henry Moore and the Sea" was held at the Chesil Gallery in 1993 to mark the completion of the sculpture during the summer of that year. In total the sculpture took £250,000 to complete. In March 2002, some minor repairs to the Chiswell Earthworks were carried out. Today the work is maintained by the Chiswell Community Trust, who also commissioned a short film by Tom Maine in 2009, which charted the process of the sculpture from 20 years earlier.
Since completion, the earthworks have been highly praised internationally, gathered various awards, and is often used by local people as well as for hosting various local events. The Chiswell Community Trust received a Green Pennant award for both the earthworks and the nearby Chiswell Walled Garden - an award for the best community-run parks in the country. Judges had considered that both sites stood out and were impressed by the excellent facilities and well-managed green spaces, signs, amenities and dedication of local people. As reported in a Dorset Echo article of July 2009, it was the fifth consecutive year in which the earthworks received the prestigious environmental award from the charity Keep Britain Tidy, GreenSpace and British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. The judges had commented that it was "a unique site" and well maintained, thanks to a partnership between Chiswell Community Trust and Community Service Unit 19, Wareham.
Sue Clifford of Common Ground stated in the short 2009 film by Tom Maine that “Nobody had ever done anything like this before, with local people, with communities, in the wild. I think it shifted things a lot, it’s now common place to find art in town squares and such places. It was the start of something. The new Milestones project emerged from our thinking that it would be great to challenge people to look closely at their place in a different way, and the idea of encouraging local folk to commission sculpture for their place seemed to us a really interesting idea. To get people to actually engage with artists, explaining to them why they loved and valued their place. John's work on the Isle of Portland, particularly this project on Chiswell is a milestone of its own. It's a really important, integrated piece. It's integrated into the community, it's integrated into the land. It's a turning point piece.”
In the video, John Maine RA spoke of the project, stating “It took some time for the ideas to develop. The original drawings just showed what basically were lines of the land, curving lines with a rhythm and energy, and these became terraces. It was a luxury really to be able to spent so much time in one place. Like a very, very extended drawing, it was like making a drawing. The hillside had paths already and so I wanted to create lines that were complimentary to those paths. The local school came down at one point and all the kids lined up in a sort of wiggly line, with other kids up on top of the hill where I worked with them to decide ‘back a bit, forward a bit’ and we sort of drew with these lines of people. Once we had that, we put stakes in the ground and then the army dug the trench through. Then we had the Manpower Services Commission, then students and some prisoners from the Young Offenders Institute, they were very good, a few at a time with an officer. We spent many hours just out here and we would always have a pile of stone near us, and built it up. As places become more conventional, less people go fishing and more people just go to Chiswell as residential accommodation, the sculpture is a reminder of the fact that Chiswell was linked to the sea and always will be. The important thing is there are people locally who have taken a pride in maintaining it. If it wasn't looked after, it would be a wreck by now.”
For the 1989 BBC documentary on the project, Maine spoke of the project and the idea behind it, “I felt that the starting point for it should be that the work should have maximum integration with the landscape. That it should be part of the landscape and not an object in the landscape – that was really the basis of it. And I did a lot of drawings of various ways that you could have an organising of this piece of landscape, where art and landscape came together. These were shown in the Chesil Gallery, and people came in and responded to them in various ways. Eventually I began to feel that one particular direction predominated over others. Rather than have say a great triangle of carved stone or something, that these terraced forms, they seemed to strike
Pictures of Chiswell Earthworks, Isle of Portland
Chiswell Earthworks. The boulders tipped over the cliff edge are quarrying waste from the 18th/19th century. (Not my photo but is freely usable.)
a certain sympathy with people. I felt that I needed to make a sculpture that the quarrymen would understand themselves. They wouldn't see it as being alien, they wouldn't be baffled it. They would say 'Oh, there's a bit quarry bank' or 'Oh, there's a bit of slat, oh, he's used a bit of flint', something like that. So in a sense they were my most critical audience. They way we've built it is really like taking a quarry to pieces, and bringing it down here, and building it back again. But of course you can't make it as nature makes it, so you have to use different strategies.”
During the BBC documentary, Sylark Durston, a retired local master stonemason had stated “I think it's unusual, I think it will in time, settle into the minds and hearts of the people – I hope it will. I personally am a bit tired of statues erected as monuments to this, that and the other. I think this is a far more acceptable tribute to stone.”
A volunteer, Michael Taylor, also stated “You guys are like 'you don't really do anything for a purpose', and I've never had no purpose, and never had nothing to show for it. And then when I started to built and I started to look at what I had done today and then started to look at what I'd done in a week, I realised it would be there for a long time. Felt like my own personal monument to what I could do, my own Stonehenge.”
Overall, I certainly recommend a visit to this great piece of artwork. Surprisingly, Chiswell Earthworks is not hugely well known outside of the local area and my uncertainty until recent times of what the story behind it was can only prove this fact. It is often usually ignored by local guides for some reason. However the place is well worth a visit and is best seen whilst walking along the promenade. The promenade extends from the end of Chesil Beach (Chesil Cove), which is right below the Chiswell Earthworks and extends out to The Cove House Inn (well worth a visit for a drink whilst taking in the spectacular views), and to where the end of Chiswell village is. Additionally the Earthworks can be seen high above on the cliff top, looking from Tophill down to the area known as Underhill. This gives an even more breathtaking view across the entire bottom part of Portland and across Chesil Beach and the causeway to the mainland (Weymouth). With plenty of footpaths around the area, the Earthworks can also be viewed from the path that runs higher up on the right, alongside Underhill Junior School. Just down from the Chiswell Earthworks is Quiddles Café, who specialise in seafood. Sadly the small play park just up from the Chiswell Earthworks, which was always a focal point for me, has been removed and the space left abandoned since. Overall, Chiswell Earthworks is well worth a look in this particular area of the Isle of Portland.
The 1989 BBC Documentary can be found on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F04NflpW_fc The 2009 short film from Tom Maine can be found here: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/artists-laboratory/earthworks,1898,AR.html In March 2013, I created a Wikipedia article based on Chiswell Earthworks and the information in this review can be found there too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiswell_Earthworks