So ran the headline of the advertising blurb for a documentary by Andrew Lloyd Webber in last week’s TV guide. The documentary was part of ITV’s “Perspectives” season and was entitled A passion for the pre-Raphaelites.
“The Industrial Revolution:” the blurb continued,
“A turning point for mankind but not necessarily for the better. Mass productivity went together with mass poverty. Soaring profits saw soaring prostitution. And increasing mechanisation sat alongside increasing child mortality. Seven angry young men found this social injustice too much to take. Their Victorian blood boiling, they did what any group of enraged twenty-somethings would do.
“They painted. Not the murky, mechanical world around them, but the one that was fading into a hazy memory. A world of outstanding beauty and moral purpose filled with dazzling colours and lifelike detail. In the end, the most compelling works of the Industrial Age were produced by hand, not machine.”
In other words, the pre-Raphaelites were culture makers.
I wrote last month about Andy Crouch’s exhortation to not merely “condemn, critique, copy or consume” culture but rather to create it, and it seems the pre-Raphaelites had the same idea.
They didn’t burn down factories or picket brothels. They didn’t send petitions to their MPs or urge everyone they met to boycott mass-produced goods.
They looked at the culture around them, saw what was wrong with it, and set about creating something better.
That’s all very well if you’re a talented artist with the money and connections to be able to devote your life to painting, but what about me, what can I possibly create in my world?
I’m currently listening to The Hiding Place on audio book. In case you don’t know the book, it is the true story of the ten Boom family who, in WWII, helped hundreds of Jews hide and escape from the Nazis in Holland. Eventually they were arrested and imprisoned.
Over the weekend I was listening to an episode described by Corrie ten Boom. She tells of the first prison she and her family were in. They had all been separated, and Corrie, who had a bad case of the flu, was put in solitary confinement. She was desperately lonely, and worried about her family – the guards were so strict it was impossible even to send messages between cells.
One day, a kindly guard arranged for Corrie to be walking past her older sister Betsie’s cell during an inspection. Through the open door, Corrie caught a glimpse of the culture-making her sister had been up to. In this tiny, cramped, dirty, barren space, Betsie had organised her 5 cellmates to roll up their mattresses neatly during the day, line them along the wall, and perch their hats jauntily on top. The meagre food parcels they had been sent from friends outside were arranged attractively on the small shelf and, perhaps best of all, each woman’s coat hung on a peg with its sleeve draped over the shoulder of the coat beside it. Corrie said they looked like a line of ladies dancing together.
Betsie owned a coat and a hat. She lived in discomfort, dirt and malnourishment. She rarely saw the sunshine or breathed the fresh air, and yet she created beauty in her cell. She saw what was wrong with her world and with the tiny grains she had, set about making something better.
Is there really nothing you could do?
What is wrong with the world you’re living in?
What do you have in your hands?
How could you create something better than that which is around you?