When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was deeply enamoured with the group of Victorian artists who styled themselves as the Pre-Raphaelites. They were very much of the belief that contemporary Victorian art was morally and technically deficient, and stated that a return to the purity of artists before the high Renaissance was needed.
The three men at the forefront of this movement were John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. Millais was arguably the most technically proficient. His paintings are intensely colourful, and the level of detail is positively photographic. See “Ophelia” below
Rossetti’s work on the other hand was the most metaphysical, with languid heroines wandering through crumbling gothic landscapes with their flowing luscious red hair. It was metaphysical in that it’s not always clear what message he intended to convey in his paintings. One gets the sense that they are poems in paint – designed to evoke yearnings for a different age. Either that, or he had a thing for red-heads (he did – one in particular).
Holman Hunt was perhaps the best exponent of their beliefs. Through his long and distinguished career, he never really left behind his conviction that art should educate, and be morally and spiritually edifying. Millais, as he grew older, left the higher ideals of Pre-Raphaelitism behind. Holman Hunt didn’t. Every painting has a message, sometimes hidden, sometimes rather gauchely obvious. And whilst his technique was perhaps not quite at the level of Millais’, I loved his use of bright colour, of shadow. His paintings almost look like dioramas populated with waxwork figures – there is something just a little unnatural about the human populations of his work. To our modern sensibilities, his paintings can seem cloying, overly moralistic. But I was drawn to his adherence to his ideals.
And so I began to paint my own versions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. I even at times used their method of painting directly onto still wet white-washed canvas – inspired as they were by the practise in the early Renaissance of painting frescoes directly onto wet plaster. My art teachers often looked askance at my latest venture, wondering what cheese I’d eaten the night before. And I don’t think my early work was particularly successful, either in communicating its aims, or in its technique. Composition for example was often secondary to theme. Once this happens, is it really art? Or is it a sermon?
First painting: “I shall not want”, 1998
Second painting: ” The Garden of Earthly Delights” 1987
Nowadays, I content myself with painting nature. Nature is it’s own story-teller. I don’t need to inject some deeper meaning, when what I am doing is showing how I am affected by the scene which lies before me. I am expressing something deeply spiritual, if you like, in my response to what I see. No need for commentary. That is more than enough for the time being.