Antiques from an oil company’s London offices are helping to recreate the world where Thomas Hardy wrote some of his best-loved works.
Max Gate, the house which Hardy built on the outskirts of Dorchester in West Dorset, is owned by the National Trust and opened fully to the public last year – but had only sparse furnishing.
Now, thanks to a donation of surplus antique furniture from Shell UK, it looks more as it did when Hardy wrote classic works including Tess of the d’Urbevilles.
James Grasby, the National Trust curator who negotiated the deal, said: “We are fortunate to have photographs of the house when Hardy was here so we have used that evidence to recreate the rooms in the same mood as during Hardy’s occupation and of his married life here.
“Visitors are already saying that it is like stepping into somebody’s house, which is what we are aiming to achieve.”
The gift from Shell included bookcases, a selection of chairs, several writing desks and even lamps and ceramics.
“When I went to see what was on offer I found a mixture of styles, a Victorian dining table, a Regency sidetable and other Georgian and Edwardian pieces and all good quality,” said Mr Grasby. “But of course, Hardy didn’t buy all new furniture, he furnished his home with a mixture of items, much as most people do today. This is good robust furniture which helps us to tell the story of what Max Gate was like when great works of literature were created here.”
While the Shell donation has formed the core of furniture for Max Gate, the National Trust has added other items and purchased textiles, pictures and some silver plate to complete the look of the house.
“One of our volunteers, Jennifer Young, made case covers for the furniture from some lovely fabric of the right period which was reclaimed from some old curtains,” said the curator.
The house, which was designed by Hardy, was previously let to tenants and only open three afternoons a week for a few hours by arrangement with the tenants until they moved out, allowing the trust to offer access to all three floors for the first time, and the garden.
The house was empty when Max Gate was given to the trust in 1940. Hardy’s desk and many other objects he owned are in a recreation of his study at the Dorset County Museum nearby in the county town of Dorchester.
Hardy was born in a small cob and thatch cottage near Dorchester in 1840, and wrote his early works there, including Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd.
His father worked as a stonemason and local builder, but his mother Jemima was well-read and she educated Hardy until he went to his first school at Bockhampton aged eight.
Hardy trained as an architect in Dorchester before moving to London in 1862, but he never felt at home there and he moved back to Dorset some years later.
Max Gate was his home from 1885 until his death in 1928.