Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) was, in the early 1900s, one of the most revered artists in the world. Today he is little-known and is more likely to be associated with the eponymous concert hall in Swansea than with the murals which decorate its walls. As late as 1952 he was important enough to be the subject of the first retrospective at the Royal Academy of a living artist. Now, over 50 years after his death, he is due for a reappraisal.
Born in Bruges of Welsh parents, Brangwyn received no formal training, though as a young man he worked with William Morris and was thoroughly imbued with the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. As a painter he had a passion for the sea and his early work was influenced by the realists Bastien-Lepage and H H La Thangue. The Scots colourist Arthur Melville taught him to brighten his palette and he was much struck with Delacroix’s lively handling of paint. Other major influences were Whistler, 16th century Venetian art, French symbolism and William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites. From the 1890s onwards he won medals for painting at international exhibitions and in 1895 Siegfried Bing asked him to decorate the façade of the famous Paris shop L’Art Nouveau in a style evoking Japanese woodcuts. At this time Brangwyn was designing carpets and decorative schemes which placed him in the forefront of the avant garde.
Brangwyn achieved early fame as a printmaker and in his lifetime designed over 1,000 original prints. He was excited by the prospects offered by printmaking to make art affordable to a broader audience. His work is characterised by an intense sympathy for the terrible and daily labour of humanity.
Other themes that emerge include
- a fascination with ships and the sea, especially the dismantling of the monumental warships that were once the pride of the British Navy
- figure groups caught up in the fury of modern life
- building yards, odd corners of old cities, especially London and Venice
- sheds, factories and foundries and smoking, writhing, living matter
Many of Brangwyn’s etchings are of great size. As one commentator wrote ‘the artist doesn’t beguile or charm; he dominates’.
In the 1930s and 1940s Brangwyn’s somewhat bombastic style began to seem old fashioned. He paid little regard to contemporary developments and in his later years he lived as a virtual recluse in Ditchling, where he had settled in 1918.
During the 1930s Brangwyn gave away many of his pictures and prints. In 1935 Brighton Museum received no fewer than 147 etchings and 48 lithographs. The gift was in recognition of the kindness shown by the director, Henry Roberts, in allowing Brangwyn the use of the exhibition galleries in 1933 to paint the large murals he was preparing for the Radio Corporation of America Building (now the General Electric Building) in the Rockefeller Centre, New York. Brangwyn never went to the USA and never saw the murals in situ.
Brangwyn produced over 40 posters for commercial enterprises between 1899 and 1936. He wanted to ‘see more art used in advertising, because advertising is a tremendous force which needs handling with much more art and common sense than it is getting at present.’
In 1930 E Pollard and Company organised an exhibition of furniture and other articles designed by Frank Brangwyn. The exhibition extended to four rooms of Pollard’s premises.