ARTIST Brian Graham is standing in his Swanage studio brandishing an axe. Not just any axe mind you. This one is half-a-million years old and was once used for slaughtering and skinning rhinoceros in the wilds of what is now genteel West Sussex.

For Graham, this flint hand-tool which was given to him by the archaeologist in charge of the famous Boxgrove dig, is a trophy that has a rare resonance. It engages directly with what his art is all about – the clues left on our landscape by the prehistoric past.

His powerful and often highly emotive paintings are routinely described as abstract. In fact more often than not they deal with the figurative reality of scars on the land. Marks on our physical landscape created by ice-ages, landslides, flood, fire meteorites, and of course, man.

Any single canvas might deal with an entire cliff-side or simply the scored surface of a pebble. Whether playing with scale, mixing things up or telling like it is Graham’s extraordinary paintings deal with over-arching sense of reality that has succeeded in chiming with both the art establishment and the world of archaeology and geology.

On one level they work simply as paint on canvas while on another they impress academics and scientists who can see that Graham intuitively understands the fundamentals of their discipline.

What makes this remarkable is that 62-year-old Poole-born Graham is a largely self-taught artist who spent years working in advertising in the Bournemouth and Christchurch areas before, in his own words “breaking free” and moving with his wife, Carol, to Swanage and life as a full-time artist, His success over the past decade and a half has been quietly spectacular. He exhibits internationally and his works – many of which are in important public and private collections – sell for the kind of sums that he once wouldnot dared dream of.

For the past 10 years he has been represented by the prestigious Hart Gallery in London’s Islington, a platform that has provided the springboard necessary to make a break from his initial reputation as someone who was simply a Dorset artist.

Graham, who will collect an honorary doctorate from Bournemouth University on Thursday, says: “I’m still known by many people as a Purbeck painter and certainly when I moved to Swanage I was so seduced by the place that I just had to paint it,” says Graham.

But he points out that he has long been interested in the pre-historic past and that – after a flurry of activity centred almost entirely on his immediate environment – that passion returned, sending him to Bronze Age and Neolithic sites exploring further and further back in time.

His more recent research has taken him not only to Boxgrove but to many other digs including Swanscombe in Kent and a project in Norfolk that has unearthed relics from a staggering 700,000 years ago – the oldest evidence of human activity ever found north of the Alps.

“These incredibly ancient things that were coming out of quarries really fired my imagination,” says Graham. “I gradually became fascinated by these pieces of evidence of past habitation. There was something about the terrain and the places where these things were found that felt so un-English, it almost related to Africa. Most importantly though it gave me material and made me want to paint.”

He says he is particularly fascinated by relics of a pre-Neanderthal race who it is believed inhabited the earth up to three-quarters of a million years ago.

Graham says simply that his motivation as an artist is driven by “a fundamental desire to know who we are, where we have come from and what we are all about.”

He admits he uses his background in advertising and marketing to promote his career and design his exhibitions, saying: “When I first made the break I didn’t want to have anything to do with my former life in graphics and advertising but why throw away a lifetime’s learning? I soon realised that my background could be very useful. It taught me how to organise my time and how to get the balance right between the discipline of the business side of things and the freedom of being a painter.”

But make no mistake, the two are inextricably linked in Brian Graham’s world. He takes the business of being a painter very seriously indeed. Showing me some remarkable new works he is painting for a planned exhibition at the Hart Gallery next year, he told me: “I’m dealing with a very important issue here. It’s in no way flippant, frivolous or decorative. It’s core stuff.”