Monday 28 February 2011

Bognor Regis Is Pre Raphaelite Now (PRB = Pre Raphaelite Bognor) for my website for the Jesus on the Tube story and images for the A Graceful Death exhibition, paintings from the end of life.  Just finished in Manchester

We Are Coming To Terms With Our Pre Raphaelite Status

The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood of 1848 has inspired Bognor to new heights.  We have become Pre Raphaelite Bognor.  This includes our Sisters as well as our Brothers, and we feel very satisfied that our Movement this week keeps the original PRB tag intact, while including not only the ever evolving town of Bognor Regis, but Ladies as well as Men.  The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood signed their names on their paintings as usual, adding the then mysterious letters PRB.  We can do that.  I will sign Rocking Rev Rachel Mann's portrait Antonia Rolls PRB when it is finished;  it will be a new milestone in our crazy town full of Artists and Artistic Endeavour.

In 1848 a group of young artists and poets decided that they couldn't bear the corrupting influence that the Mannerist artists had on art after Michaelangelo and Raphael.  They felt deeply miffed that painting after Raphael was wrong - elegant compositions, classical poses, dark dark colours and contrived sloppy painting.  It gave them, they all agreed, a headache.  Let Us, they all said, Go Back To The Wonder Of Fourteenth Century Italian And Flemish Art.  Within that art, they said with conviction, there is extraordinary detail, strong bright colour and sophisticated composition.  That, they all continued, is what we want.  

And so they formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the PRB, and history was made.  The founders of this movement were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.  Outside they went, with their paints and folding stools, and painted every detail from life.  No doing-it-later nonsense.  Right there, right now, and what is more, the attention to detail- so vital to their RB ideals - was so very realistic that it made the public go cross-eyed and very angry.  What is more, to capture the brilliant colours which are so very bright in their art, they painted directly onto a white canvas.  Shocking.  

We Pre-Raphealite Bognor artists understand the need to go out and paint directly from Nature.  We had a bit of practice when we were Impressionists a few weeks ago.  But what we have found more difficult to grasp is the love of the Medieval that the original Pre-Raffs found so vital.  Bognor isn't very Medieval, and we don't have much to go on, but we do have Roman architectural remains in Chichester, so we use that and hope it won't cause too much of a fuss.  The idea of painting everything directly from life gives us such a thrill, we paint pictures and then realise we need some chocolate in them, and some cream buns, so we have to go and find them.  Then we say to each other, "In order to make this as real as possible, the character who is eating the cakes and chocolate has to actually eat them.  And as it is my painting and only I know how it should look, you, my dear Artist companion, will have to paint me eating them and do it again and again till I say it is right."  

Much of the Pre-Raff subjects were from poetry and literature, like the Shakespearian subject of Ophelia drowning.  And Mariana, from Tennyson's poem of the same name.  There were religious subjects painted with staggering detail.  And lots of the legends of King Arthur.  And some socially aware morality stuff.

Well.  Bognor has some socially aware morality stuff.  And a good few churches - Methodist, Catholic, C of E, and a nice Quakers Meeting House.  Our Pre-Raff Bognor Artists need some obliging Quakers to pose in chain mail by the sea shore, while Bognor Locals see the Light (Religiously) and have some Epiphanies.  We would paint that with Gusto, and get quite a lot of the Pre-Raff requirements in at one go.  And to make it really amazing, someone dressed as Ophelia could drift by in the waves.  

To our sophisticated modern eye, the original Pre-Raffs were indescribably sentimental.  They were posey and naff.  But gloriously well painted and clever, and I think they are wonderful.  We have quite a few naff, sentimental models at our disposal in the pubs along the famous Bognor Promanade.  They are a wonder to us modern Pre-Raffs.  We can paint Sentimental Fishermen all the way through Maudlin Fishermen, stopping at last at Pie-Eyed Fishermen, all of which can be models for the grand painting one of us may do of Real Life along the shores of Biblical Galilee (Bognor).

Ophelia by John Everett Millais.  Painted from life 1851-52.  Let me explainNo models were drowned in the making of this.

The Shakepearian subject of the mad Ophelia drowning herself was pretty avant guard in 1851.  Others went on to paint it, but Millais was the first.  The abundant detail of the water and vegetation was painted in the Summer of 1851, and the very pretty pre Reff "stunner" and model Lizzie Siddal posed in a bath kept warm by lit lamps underneath it, in an antique dress over the winter of 1851-2.  Apparantly Lizzie got pneumonia.  These days, if we need someone to pose in the bath, we look in the Health and Safety Handbook, check with the Unions, and fly them out to Barbados to do it.  But isn't this beautiful?  For our grand Pre-Raff Bognor painting mentioned above, maybe we could get someone to float by a few times in a wetsuit, in the Summer when the sea is more inviting.  We will see.

Sir John Everett Millais, knighted for his Art and thus made even more Medieval (as a Knight), and "Christ in the House of His Parents", 1850.

Oh Lord, said the Public.  How common.  What is with all these ghastly rough and ready folk, posing for the figures of Christ and his parents?  We loath it for its ugliness and the insult to the Holy Family.  What is more, Mary here is so ugly that she cannot be real.  And so is Christ. Yuk.  Foulness and Dreadfulness.

The nearest we could get as Bognor Re-Raffs to painting this theme,  is to put our well known street busker and his life hardened pals into Robert Dyas and painting them all as the Holy Family there.  But no one would really mind, nowadays.  Yeah, the public would say, Whatever.

William Holman Hunt's "The Awakening Conscience" from 1853.  Yes, you are right.  She has the awakening conscience, he either hasn't got one, or it doesn't apply to men.

Oh I love this.  I always have.  Here, the long aubern-haired beauty is suddenly struck by how wrong she is.  She, a kept woman, rises from her lover's knee and feels Remorse.  He is unaware, and goes on playing.  Remorse, he was probably told, is unmanly, and is mostly for the fairer sex, the silly billies.  The detail of the room is fantastic, and I am sure that much of it is symbolic, like the cat under the table and the clock on the piano.  She is reflected in the mirror, and that too may be symbolic of what is real and what is not.  The thing I find amazing about all  of Holman Hunt's paintings are the tiny teeth of the people he paints.  Look at this man, look - no wonder she has remorse.  Her teeth aren't so bad, but they are still small.  This is a morality painting.  The silly bissom (so the painting tells us) has been struck by how empty and awful she is, how she is wrong and shouldn't be canoodling with a tiny toothed man, no matter how rich he is.  There is obviously some how's-your-father-going on too, which is utterly forbidden.  And still, the tiny-tooth-man plays on, because he is not to blame and anyway, he has got probably fifteen other mistresses and is very busy.

Pre-Raphaelite Bognor has one large hurdle to overcome.  In order to be fully Pre-Raff, we need to dispise and dissasociate with all our previous Bognor movements to date, except the Bognor Renaissance.  The movement we are exploring this week considers everything from Raphael onwards (painting in earnest about 1550) to be tosh, which means that our foray into the Left Bank, Surrealism, Angst and Impressionism cannot be tolerated and we need to throw them over board with a resounding splash, into the sea of disdain.  The Renaissance had peaked and was winding down by the time Raphael came on the scene, so that can stay.  But all the others - Pah! So now, out to the seafront with our easles and our fascination with bright colour and detail.  And we will dress all our Bognor Fishermen and Souvenir Shop ladies in Medieval costumes and paint fabulous morality paintings which will wow everyone.  And for some reason, all the characters in the paintings will have big teeth.  How mysterious.


  1. Nice to hear your comments on the Pre-Raphs here, Antonia. As someone who has been teaching my students how to read Pre-Raphaelite art for years I guess I take issue with your calling them sentimental. The paintings drip with symbolism but all is interpretable and adds up to the 'story' the painting is trying to tell you...and we are of course in the great era of realism and realist narrative, so they are of their time. (From Rosie Miles)

  2. hopefully one shall arrive at Bognor Dada within a few years?


  3. I think we must have an exhibition of all the Bognor movements soon.

  4. Thank you for providing such information. This is very generous of you providing such vital information which is very informative.