About Frank Brangwyn – artist
Brangwyn was the last of the great polymaths, an artist whose variety of work picks him out of the ruck. Few people are aware of the vast scope of his energies. Although he had little education and no formal art training, he was a natural draughtsman, and over the years took on the mantle of oil-painter, water-colourist, etcher, mural painter, architect, and designer of interior schemes, furniture, stained glass, mosaic, carpets, pottery and jewellery.
He was complicated, a man of contradictions and extremes – a lover of humanity who spurned social contact; a naturally restless spirit; a supremely charitable man with a reputation for being irascible; a pacifist yet a man whose brutal Great War poster Put Strength in the Final Blow (1918) reputedly led the Kaiser to put a price on his head.
His paintings, whatever the title, are usually concerned with the dignity of human labour, and the working man. Grand churches disappear behind ships’ rigging or markets or processions; lords and ladies, aristocrats and important people have no more precedence than the shirt sleeved or half dressed porters and sailors who populate Brangwyn’s world. As an outsider he didn’t expect to gain a grandstand view of important events, and so the gallery gazer is frequently presented with the back of a saint or important personage.
He was born Guillaume Francois Brangwyn in Bruges on 12th May 1867 where his Welsh parents were living and his father was working as an architect. They moved to England in 1875 and settled in the Shepherds Bush district of London. He left school at 12 and was employed by William Morris at 15. He was only 18 when his first work was accepted by the Royal Academy – it was an oil painting of a ship on the River Esk near Whitby. He had seven more accepted in the next five years.
He travelled widely – to Turkey, Tunisia, Romania and Spain. Later he visited South Africa and exhibited the work he did there in London. At the age of 29 he married Lucie Ray, a nurse, when she was 26. They lived for many years in Hammersmith. He became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1904 but it was another 15 years before he became a full member. His first work in Leeds was in 1905 when he was commissioned by Kitson to execute a verge for the walls of the University of Leeds. He did more work for Kitson and visited his villa at Taormina on Sicily where he painted frescoes.
In 1912 he started his work on the St Aidan’s mosaics and at the same time he was also designing stained glass and working on murals, large oil paintings, posters and etchings. He was a very busy man. The St Aidan’s work was completed in 1916. His world-wide work continued – the United States, France, Japan and Belgium where he was made a Commander and Cross of the Order of Leopold. And he and Lucy moved to Ditchling near Brighton. In 1923 he completed another major work – murals for Christ’s Hospital at Horsham that had taken him eleven years. Lucy died in the same year from broncho pneumonia.
He continued working in many different styles, lithographs, etchings, furniture, ceramics, crockery and an Egyptian setting for the Chelsea Arts Ball. He was very generous and gave many of his works to art galleries – Birmingham, Cardiff, Swansea, Brighton and Scarborough were recipients. Another major work was his panels for the British Empire Exhibition which can now be seen in Swansea. And he designed the cover for the 1934 Christmas edition of the Radio Times.
In 1938 he designed the stained glass windows for the church of St André in his birthplace of Bruges and he received another order from the King of the Belgians. He also designed the Brangwyn estate in Brighton, displaying yet another addition to his many talents. In 1941 he was knighted. And in 1952 he was the first living artist to be given a retrospective exhibition by the Royal Academy. He died in 1956 at the age of 89. His housekeeper, Lizzie Peacock, who had worked for him since 1904 was with him when he died.