The Museum and Art Gallery on Bath Road, Old Town, is so small that it can only show a fraction of the amazing collections that Swindon owns. Here, experts at the museum lift the lid on just some of the objects that tell us the long and colourful story of Swindon and how it shaped the community we are today

Girl Selling Flowers by Desmond Morris (1946)

This riot of colour is a snapshot of young love enjoyed by two Swindon adolescents more than 70 years ago. Both were approaching adulthood with ambition and verve – like many they had dreams of taking the world beyond Swindon by storm – but for now they were biding their time, nurturing their talents and enjoying each other’s company.

The subject is one Diana Fluck, who was born in The Haven Nursing Home in Kent Road and lived in Marlborough Road, and was just 14 when this was painted.

And the artist is Purton-born Desmond Morris, three years her senior, who had moved with his parents to Swindon when he was five, and spent much of his time at his grandmother’s lake on her private land, which is now the site of Queen’s Park.

Diana was a precocious actor and singer, and was about to join the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), lying about her age to gain an offer of a place.

Soon, she would follow her mother’s advice and change her stage name to Diana Dors – taking the surname of her maternal grandmother.

“They asked me to change my name. I suppose they were afraid that if my real name Diana Fluck was in lights and one of the lights blew…” she was to quip, years later.

Desmond’s great grandfather was William Morris, founder of the Swindon Advertiser, and himself a naturalist. Young Desmond inherited an insatiable curiosity about the living world around him. With sole access to the family lake, he built himself a raft and would lie face down on it for hours, studying the fish, newts and insects in their natural environment.

But Desmond’s interests were not restricted to nature. He was also passionate about art, and particularly taken with the burgeoning Surrealism movement. And this Purton-born polymath had extraordinary creative talent too. As this painting shows, he was a bold and innovative artist even at the tender age of 18.

Diana Dors went on to capture the imagination of the cinema-going public and became known as the “blonde bombshell” and Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe. Her early films and modelling assignments were, for the time, considered risqué and her personal life was colourful with tabloid stories of wild parties. But she later took the chance to show off her genuine talent in cabaret and on chat-shows, and became something of a national treasure before her premature death from ovarian cancer at the age of 52.

Desmond Morris held his first one-man show of paintings in Swindon Arts Centre just two years after painting Girl Selling Flowers, and a few years later exhibited with Catalan surrealist Joan Miro – managing to sell a couple of paintings while Miro sold none.

But he realised that it was his scientific interest that was more likely to provide a decent income, and studied zoology at the University of Birmingham, before researching the reproductive behaviour of the ten-spined stickleback at Oxford. The rest, as they say, is history. Morris went on to become a well-known natural science broadcaster and author, and in 1967, with the publication of The Naked Ape – a zoologist’s study of the human animal, which has never been out of print since – he was able to shift some of his attention back to his art.

The man that Diana described as her “teenage crush” – and whom she taught to jitterbug at his grandmother’s lake - became a prolific Surrealist artist, and still paints and exhibits to this day. He celebrated his 90th birthday in January, and The Redfern Gallery in Cork Street, London, is holding a special exhibition in his honour. Desmond Morris is Patron of the Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.

  • You can find out more about Swindon’s story at the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. It is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm.

  • Girl Selling Flowers was purchased by the Friends of Swindon Museum & Art Gallery with the assistance of the Resource/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, 2001