This autumn sees a major celebration of the Pre-Raphaelites. ‘Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde’ (12 September 2012 – 13 January 2013) at Tate Britain will be a major reassessment of these artists, and the redeveloped William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow has just opened. But many people are not aware that some of the finest Pre-Raphaelite works are on our doorstep – in St. Michael’s Church, Victoria Road. In 1909, the stained glass artist Selwyn Image wrote: “Brighton possesses the finest modern piece of stained glass that has ever been done…for the magnificence of its design, the sense… of being in the presence of supernatural beings, the perfectness of its splendid colouring…this specimen seemed to be perfection”.
Saint Michael’s, designed by George Frederick Bodley, is acknowledged as the finest Victorian church in Sussex. A striking, early example of a town church, it was the first brick church in Brighton. It was consecrated by the Bishop of Chichester in 1862, and Fr. Robert Fayers, the current Vicar, and his colleagues, have organised special festivities to mark its 150th Anniversary. Constructed to accommodate 700 worshippers, the original congregation quickly grew and it was necessary to extend the church dramatically. William Burges designed a ‘parallel’ church, which was built in 1893.
Bodley, a leading ecclesiastical architect, met the young William Morris in the late 1850s. Morris set up Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861, and Bodley’s commissions for stained glass and ecclesiastical decorations from Morris, during the 1860s, helped to establish the firm’s reputation. Experts consider that the windows, executed in 1862 by Morris and his colleagues for St. Michael’s, represent the highest achievement of Pre-Raphaelite glass, and the Morris firm at its most innovative. Indeed, the resplendent great West Window is one of the finest stained glass windows of the nineteenth century.
This year, the Friends of St Michael’s are raising funds to go towards essential finance for work on stabilising the West Window which, although a national art treasure, is in a precarious state.
Morris was inspired by medieval stained glass and the West Window consists of two windows, each of two lancets, with a six-foil above each, and a rose in the gable consisting of a seven-foil, surrounded by seven circles. The most famous Pre-Raphaelites were involved in designing the window lights. William Morris himself created The Annunciation, St Gabriel and St Raphael, whose face was redrawn by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as Morris was unhappy with his own work. St Michael, the Archangel, and St Uriel were designed by Ford Madox Brown; Peter Paul Marshall designed St Michael and the Dragon; and Edward Burne-Jones was responsible for the Rose Window, showing the Virgin and Child and angels playing bells. The magnificent preponderance of angels recalls Burne-Jones’s remark: “The more materialist science becomes, the more angels shall I paint; their wings are my protest in favour of the immortality of the soul.”
The Friends are celebrating links of St. Michael’s to the Pre-Raphaelites with their annual lecture on Saturday 6October at 3pm. Dr Carol Jacobi, Tate Curator of British Art 1850 – 1915, will talk on Pre-Raphaelite Avant-Garde, casting new light on paintings and objects by this intriguing group of artists. Another treat will be ‘A Connoisseurs’ Tour of S. Michael’s’ with David Beevers, Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, on Saturday 10 November at 11.30am. This event is for Friends and their guests. David, who wrote the guidebook to St Michael’s, will conduct a special tour of the Bodley church, during which he will talk about its building history and show fascinating artefacts, including examples of magnificent church plate.
To apply for tickets and for further details on Friends’ membership and events, please visit http://www.friendsofsaintmichaels.co.uk. St. Michael’s is open Saturdays, 10am – 4pm.