Robert Goff & the destruction of Brighton’s first pier

On 4 December 1896 a storm destroyed the first of Brighton’s piers, the Chain Pier. It had been built in 1823, the same year the finishing touches were added to John Nash’s transformation of the Royal Pavilion into an Oriental-looking fantasy palace.

Destruction of the Old Chain Pier, Brighton, 1896

This etching by Hove-based artist Robert Charles Goff (1837-1922) records the destruction of Brighton’s first pier in that great storm of 4 December 1896.

Goff’s etchings and paintings earned him an international reputation during his lifetime. A fervent traveller, he found subjects for his art in Italy, Egypt, Japan, Holland and Switzerland, but he had a special connection with England’s south coast. He spent a total of 33 years in Hove and Brighton, whose seafronts inspired some of his best and most popular works.

This is one of Goff’s larger plates. It has a narrative comment etched onto one corner of the plate, noting the fate of Brighton’s earliest pier. Goff must have gone to the scene during the great storm, or soon after. The wind is still strong and there are large dramatic rain clouds in the west, plunging Brighton’s skyline into darkness. Dozens of curious people brave the wind and rain to look at the remains of the pier. The picture is also noteworthy for showing all three Brighton piers together. The Palace Pier (now Brighton Pier) is under construction, while rain is falling on the West Pier in the distance.

Water was a major theme in Goff’s work. He painted and etched views of the sea, shorelines and waterways in every phase of his career, wherever he worked and lived. In another etching Goff depicts waves crashing precariously around the end of the West Pier. The artist appears to have sketched this scene in strong wind and rain, standing very close to the edge of the water. The art critic Frederick Wedmore praised the work in 1911, commenting that there is ‘no better wave-drawing than Goff’s in The South Cone’.

The South Cone, before 1895

Within a few weeks of its destruction the Brighton writer John George Bishop paid tribute to the Chain Pier with the publication of a booklet commemorating  the building. A few months later he published a larger and lavishly decorated and illustrated book: The Brighton Chain Pier: In Memoriam. Its history from 1823 to 1896, with a biographical notice of Sir Samuel Brown, its designer and constructor, and an appendix. Several of the photographs in the book are the work of Brighton and Hove photographers Ebenezer Pannell and Thomas Donovan.

The Brighton Chain Pier: In Memoriam. Its history from 1823 to 1896, with a biographical notice of Sir Samuel Brown, its designer and constructor, and an appendix.

A digital copy of this book is available via the Internet Archive

Alexandra Loske, Guide and Researcher at the Royal Pavilion

6 Responses

  1. Articles like this that inform but also give references to follow up (in this case, etchings by Goff and the book by Bishop) are both interesting and useful, little gems in fact.

    I note that there was an exhibition of Goff’s work that ended in April this year and am sorry I missed it. Perhaps another one can be arranged in the not too distant future.

    In the meantime, I look forward to more interesting and well written posts like this one.

  2. As a newspaper proprietor, John George Bishop was a lot faster acting than three years! He produced the small first edition of his “In Memoriam” the very same month, and the lavish second edition in your photograph was available in 1897.

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