Demystifying death by painting the dying - a Chichester exhibition

When her partner Steve was dying of cancer in 2007, Bognor Regis artist Antonia Rolls tried to process her grief by painting him as his body deteriorated.

Friday, 19th October 2018, 3:44 pm
Updated Friday, 19th October 2018, 4:45 pm
Antonias portrait of patient care campaigner Kate Granger (19812016)
Antonias portrait of patient care campaigner Kate Granger (19812016)

Through those paintings, she sensed that his soul remained intact.

The result was an exhibition A Graceful Death which she staged in her own home in 2009 after running into difficulty finding a more public venue.

In the following nine years, Antonia has painted around 20 more people in extremis – paintings which now form an exhibition which she brings to St John’s Chapel in St John’s Street, Chichester from Friday, October 26 to Sunday, October 28, opening 11am to 5pm.


“The exhibition has grown over the years and is now an experience, moving, powerful, uplifting and emotional,” Antonia says. “It asks us to consider our mortality and not only how we die, but how we live.

“My partner Steve died in Worthing hospice. I had been on my own for ten years, raising my children. I had met Steve 18 months before, out of the blue. I had three children and had been bruised after a divorce and thought there was no chance of ever experiencing love again. But I found it – and then 18 months later he died.

“There was a definite before Steve and after Steve in my life. I thought love would be invincible and bad things couldn’t happen, but sadly the cancer was greater than the love. But while he was dying, I was trying to make sense of everything and I started to paint him. His body was changing into something that I didn’t recognise, but his soul was still the same. I put on an exhibition of the paintings two years later in 2009.”

Things grew from there. People started to ask Antonia to paint them in their final illness. She started to get referrals from cancer centres.

“The relationship that was formed between me and the person who was dying was intense and wonderful. They didn’t have much time.”

Antonia has gone on to exhibit the paintings including at NHS conferences, universities, theological colleges and churches: “It has been in places where you have to know what you are walking into. It has never been entertainment. The exhibition is loving and powerful and very raw.

“It is an exhibition about living and dying. I am not someone who is medically trained, but I have so much passion to work with the dying. My goal is to encourage and educate and inform so that people who are dying can adapt to live the best life they can with their family. The subject of death and dying makes people scared. It throws up all sorts of frightening thoughts about one’s own mortality, but this is about making people feel more equipped.”

The exhibition goes far beyond the paintings.

“There are discussions, talks and workshops by others working in the end of life field, the idea being that members of the community support and encourage other members of the community to face, accept, prepare for and understand what it means for people we love, know or even ourselves, to face death.

“There are now over 50 paintings and portraits, with interviews both written and filmed of the people I have painted, poetry and stories donated by members of the public, books both on the exhibition and by a photographer on his own grief reactions to his mother’s death (it is very good too). There is also piano music especially composed for the exhibition.”

Opening Night is Thursday, October 25 6-9pm; music will be provided by musicians from the University of Chichester String Quartet.

Talks and discussions:

Friday, October 26

12pm. Soul Midwifery, how to be yourself with the end of life Antonia Rolls, artist and soul midwife

2pm. What Macmillan Cancer Care can offer Anton Morgan-Thorne Volunteering Services Co-ordinator, South and East

4pm. Reassurances about the Dying Process, discussion and Q&As Gill Lake, palliative care nurse and author

Saturday, October 27

12pm. Being Rock, listening supportively to people and their families at the end of life Mandy Preece, soul midwife and teacher

2pm. When Grief Gets Physical, Madeleine Pook, pain management and physio advisor to HMSA UK

4pm. Reassurances about the Dying Process, discussion and Q&As Gill Lake, palliative care nurse and author

Sunday, October 28

12pm. My Teachers on the Pathway through to Death Melanie Sheppard, former palliative care nurse, current practicing holistic and mindfulness therapist

2pm. When Grief Gets Physical Madeleine Pook, pain management and physio advisor to HMSA UK

4pm. Living and Dying, Last Words – Closing the Exhibition Antonia Rolls, artist and soul midwife and Gill Lake, palliative care nurse and author