Home grown Swanage talent makes artistic splash at The Mowlem

Self taught Swanage artist Josh Hollingshead has been around the world to find inspiration for his eye catching canvases – and now finds himself in high demand at home.

Large scale works by Josh are on display at The Mowlem until Tuesday 2nd April 2024, filling its exhibition space with colourful and fascinating scenes of life and death in Madagascar.


Josh with Graves of St Petersburg, memorials to a dead regime as well as to the dead

Three major shows in a year

His other work includes scenes from Russia, Corfu, Malta and Morocco, but the fascinating narrative artwork is now beginning to find growing acclaim right here in Purbeck.

In late May and early June for Dorset Arts Week 2024, Josh will be exhibiting with artist and gallery director Rufus Knight Webb at his Lulworth house, designed by noted architect Sir Edwyn Lutyens.

And in July 2024, a lot of his narrative paintings will be on show at a large exhibition at the Fine Foundation Gallery in Durlston Castle, called Hierarchy and Other Stories.

It is the first time he has had three major exhibitions in a year and represents a major landmark on the journey that began sketching seascapes in Swanage Bay and copying works by the Old Masters in coloured pencils.

One of Josh’s early Dorset seascapes was drawn at the age of 14, to learn perspectives in painting

A copy of a Vermeer in coloured pencil

Josh Hollingshead said:

“I did GCSE and AS level in art at The Purbeck School, but then decided to leave and get on with it myself.

“My dad would always encourage me to draw and help me to size up the proportions of objects when I was drawing and learn to do realistic drawings.

“I did a copy of a Vermeer in coloured pencil at the age of 14 when I was trying to learn how to draw accurately and at the age of 16 I started doing oil paintings, when I knew I definitely wanted to be an artist.

“When I left school I did get accepted at Taunton art college, but I quickly realised that college wasn’t for me, as I would only have spent about a third of the time painting and the rest learning about forms of art that don’t especially interest me, like land art and installation art.

“The rigid view that you had to learn a bit of everything just wasn’t right for me at all when I only wanted to focus on painting, so I went back to live with my mother and had a lot of encouragement from my family.

“But I had to paint in my bedroom and there wasn’t a lot of room to work in – I’d buy big canvases which would almost fill the room and even getting them in and out of the house could be difficult.”

A collection of some of the varied and eyecatching art in Josh’s studio gallery

Suffering for his art

The family moved to an address in the High Street in Swanage which had previously been owned by a textile company and had a workshop studio shed in the garden which became Josh’s new workspace and allowed him to work on a much bigger scale – one of his first paintings measured three metres by two.

Josh got his first studio gallery in 2014 on the Swanage industrial estate and had large paintings hanging from wires on the wall with strip lights illuminating them, but footfall was a problem as the gallery was so far from the town centre.

When even advertising and leaflet drops didn’t bring visitors in, he moved into Daisy Mays arcade where the quality of his work was quickly recognised by a gallery in Cambridge which bought several of his larger pieces and still displays and sells a lot of them.

But in 2017, Josh started having seizures after working on a large canvas with a fluorescent orange underlayer and he believes that the extremely bright colour and the number of hours he was painting with it – up to 16 hours a day – brought it on.

The condition was diagnosed as functional neurological disorder (FND) which has affected him a lot and has forced him to cut down on the number of hours he spends painting.

Josh is still awaiting full treatment for the disorder and has had to stop using fluorescent orange in his paintings, although he still uses many other vibrant colours to help tell stories through his work.

The Hollingshead Studio Gallery in Commercial Road, Swanage

Island’s festival of the dead

Josh Hollingshead said:

“My theory is that it triggers this sensitivity that I have to noises like drilling, motorbikes and sirens, as well as flashing lights – I feel like my brain responded to the vivid colour like it was in an emergency state and was triggered into overreacting and causing seizures.

“I had to severely restrict the number of hours I could paint after that in Daisy May’s arcade as the number of motorbikes going past would set me off, so in 2021 I moved to Commercial Road as it’s much quieter.”

Josh’s studio gallery in Commercial Road is a riot of colour with fascinating images and stories painted large, and now he hopes to bring his work to the attention of a wider audience with the three big exhibitions in Purbeck.

Visitors to The Mowlem have already said how striking the paintings are, depicting the extremely varied culture and landscape of Madagascar from rainforest to the rice paddies and red soil of the Haute Plateau where manmade geysers regularly erupt.

But the most arresting canvas depicts Famadihana, a ceremony held once every seven years by families who disinter their dead ancestors, clean them off and parade them around their villages before placing them back in the family tomb with fresh silk shrouds.

Detail from the festival of Famadihana, Madagascar’s celebration of the dead

“They view dying like a promotion”

Josh Hollingshead said:

“It is such a different culture and it’s fascinating. They have the remains of their dead wrapped in silk shrouds and then in matting, and stored on shelving within the family tomb.

“One of the reasons they only hold this festival every seven years is because it’s so expensive and a family has to save a lot of money to be able to afford the new shrouds, musicians, entertainment and big meal for the villagers.

“They are very proud of the celebration which they believe shows respect to the dead and brings them closer to their ancestors – they view dying almost like a promotion.

“It demystifies death in a way – people are more open about it and will talk about it more, they don’t have the fear about death that we have in the Western world, it helped me get over losses in my own family.”

Poachers is one of the thought provoking paintings in The Mowlem’s new exhibition

Geysers of Madagascar

Josh added:

“I also got to see the geysers of Madagascar, created when the French colonialists drilled for oil after World War I, but fractured the aquifer and mineral rich waters gushed to the surface. They still erupt into the air to this day, more than a century after they were created.

“It’s used as a spa mostly by people from the capital who bathe in the waters to cure their skin ailments, though I don’t know if it’s effective or not. Sometimes there are medicinal qualities to things we don’t realise.”

Josh will be holding a question and answer session for those who want to find out more about his works from 6.45 pm to 8 pm at The Mowlem on Wednesday 27th March 2024.

His exhibition at Durlston Castle from Wednesday 3rd to Thursday 18th July 2024 will be built around his painting Hierarchy, which shows a society of people helping and hindering others in different ways.

Hierarchy will be the centrepoint of Josh’s summer exhibition at Durlston Castle in July

A social pyramid with famous faces

Josh Hollingshead said:

“It’s almost a social pyramid with those at the bottom being crushed and some famous faces at the top, with a moat around everyone making it almost like a fortress of people.

“My favourite themes include inequality, mortality, religion and the environment, I let vivid colours fill my paintings and hope all the detail in them means that the viewer almost feels they could walk into a painting to discover its story.”

Dacha is Josh’s imagining of how Covid affected the people of Russia who were confined to their tiny homes

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