Sir Frank William Brangwyn, RA HRSA RSW RWS PRBA RE HRMS ROI (1867-1956)
Frank Brangwyn fulfilled his own belief, stated in 1934, that an artist ‘must be able to turn his hand to everything, for his mission is to decorate life’. Though modest about his own achievements, he was ambitious in the range and scale of his art, creating large-scale murals, oils and watercolours, illustrations and prints, ceramics, furniture, stained-glass and textiles, in emulation of traditional workshop practice. He was particularly successful at arranging large numbers of figures into complex compositions that vary in mood from impassioned to celebratory.
Frank Brangwyn was born in Bruges on 12 May 1867, the son of an Anglo-Welsh architect and ecclesiastical designer. He returned with his family to London in 1875, and at the age of 12 entered his father’s practice. Sparked by his Belgian upbringing, he soon developed a broad knowledge of Dutch and Flemish art and, from 1882-84, helped to make facsimiles of Flemish tapestries in William Morris’s workshops.
He was encouraged by Harold Rathbone and Arthur Mackmurdo to complement this knowledge by copying the works of Italian artists such as Donatello and Raphael in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
From 1884, Brangwyn divided his life between London and time spent travelling, both in England and abroad. In the mid 1880s, he worked en plein-air in Cornwall, producing a series of subdued oils that he exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of British Artists. He was then drawn by his great love of the sea to work as a sailor (1887-94), and so travelled to the Continent, Africa, Russia, Malaya and Japan. His travels encouraged a change of palette, as he explained in his article, ‘Spain as a Sketching Ground’ (The Studio, 1893), recording a trip made in 1891 with Arthur Melville: ‘Always hearing that my work was flimsy and grey... I determined to go in for a bit of colour, pure and undefiled’. His new style was appreciated in America and on the Continent but much criticised in Britain. His champions were lone voices such as George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), who encouraged Brangwyn to paint murals, an activity that would lead to many honours. In this early phase, he exhibited mainly at the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA 1890, PRBA 1913-18) and the Royal Society of Painters in Oils (ROI 1893).
In 1901, Brangwyn received his first major mural commission from a British institution, the Skinners’ Company, which asked for a series of historical panels to decorate its hall. The first panel that he completed contributed to his election as an associate of the Royal Academy (ARA 1904) and led to many subsequent decorative schemes. However, his work as a muralist never hampered his versatility, and actually strengthened his other activities. He began to etch in an architectonic style with strong chiaroscuro (from 1904, elected RE 1907), and used an increasing amount of bodycolour in his watercolours. His illustrative output (from 1895) demonstrated confidence and variety equivalent to his paintings and prints, and he worked with equal success in black and white and in colour. His increasing attraction to exotic climes and a hot palette led him to produce sensual illustrations to The Thousand and One Nights (1896) and The Rubàiyàt of Omar Khayyam (1910); yet he retained a love of the brooding monumentality made possible by monochrome, as revealed in his illustrations to the poetry of Emile Verhaeren (1919).
During the First World War, Brangwyn played an important role as a propaganda artist. He was emotionally involved in the action, and was kept from visiting the Front only by pressure of work. His lithographed posters and designs for commemorative stamps, for charities and commercial organisations, proved very popular and led to commissions from the government. However, the resulting images provoked controversial reactions, depicting as they did the stark reality of the war.
He was forced to re-evaluate the effect of his posters when a nephew was killed, and he continued to design them in the painful understanding that duty to nation had to outweigh that of personal consideration. This loyalty was awarded in the wake of war by an increase in his reputation, and his election to a number of societies: Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Water-Colours (1917), Royal Society of Miniature Painters (Honorary member 1918), Royal Scottish Academy (Honorary member 1918), Royal Academy (1919), Society of Graphic Artists (President 1921) and the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (ARWS 1921).
From 1924, Brangwyn occupied himself with what he considered to be the culmination of his life’s work, the commission from Edward Guinness, 1st Lord Iveagh, to paint panels on Imperial themes as part of the Peers’ War Memorial in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords. However, on completion, they were rejected as being too flamboyant for the setting, and were purchased instead for the Guildhall, Swansea, where they remain to this day. Brangwyn increasingly ignored developments in art, and continued in his own manner, adapting traditional methods to suit his personal style. He ended his career as he had begun, devoting his time to religious art and applied design, and also planning the opening of museums of his own work, at Bruges and Orange. Following his knighthood in 1941, he lived at his home at Ditchling, Sussex, virtually as a recluse, and died there on 11 June 1956.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the William Morris Gallery (Walthamstow), the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Musée de la Ville (Orange) and the Brangwyn Museum (Bruges).
Further reading William de Belleroche, Brangwyn Talks, London: Chapman & Hall Ltd, 1946; Rodney Brangwyn, Brangwyn, London: Kimber, 1978