These past two weeks or so I have been working as an invigilator for Swansea University. One of the venues used for exams is the beautiful Brangwyn Hall. The murals that adorn the massive walls are stunning.
Frank Brangwn was born in Bruges, Belgium (Welsh father, English mother) in 1867. His father was a church architect and craftsman. Frank was largely self-taught but that did not stop him from becoming a painter, water colourist, engraver, illustrator and progressive designer. In his youth, Brangwyn had joined Royal Navy Volunteers and travelled extensively including Russia and South Africa.
He was an astonishingly proflic artist. As well as paintings and drawings, he produced designs for stained glass, furniture, ceramics, table glassware, buildings and interiors. He was also a lithographer and woodcutter and was a book illustrator. It has been estimated that during his lifetime Brangwyn produced over 12,000 works. His mural commissions would cover over 22,000 sq ft (2,000 m2) of canvas, he painted over 1,000 oils, over 660 mixed media works (watercolours, gouache), over 500 etchings, about 400 wood engravings and woodcuts, 280 lithographs, 40 architectural and interior designs, 230 designs for items of furniture and 20 stained glass panels and windows.
Known as the British Empire Panels Brangwyn spent a total of 7 years producing 16 large works that cover 3,000 sq ft (280 m2). When you see the size of the murals you can understand why they took 7 years to complete.
In 1928 the House of Lords was commissioned Brangwyn to produce a series celebrating the beauty of the British Empire and the Dominions to fill the Royal Gallery. Lord Iveagh tried to secure Brangwyn full artistic freedom to design and paint the commission his way. Unfotunately, Lord Iveagh died in 1927. After 5 years of work the panels were displayed in the Royal Gallery for approvial by the Lords, but the peers refused to accept them because they were “too colourful and lively” for the location. It was worse than that. Some of them mocked his work in the national press. Lord Crawford, a Tory Peer, wrote in a “The Daily News” that the painting would be more suited to a night club than the House of Lords: “Just imagine five feet long bananas and grinning black monkeys looming over them!”
It has been suggested that, this was rejection was part of a increasing restriction on artiostic expression that accompanying the birth of totalitarian movements across Europe. Fortuantely for the people of Wales and Swansea in partricular 1934 the panels were purchased by Swansea Council in 1934 and were housed in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea.
The House of Lords’ loss is Swansea’s gain. These panels are absolutely astonishing. They are massive, colorful and packed to the gills with detail. Apparently, the height of the Hall’s ceiling had to be increased slightly to accommodate the tallest of the panels. They dominate the very large hall and the photographs fail the capture the huge scale of the panels. The are a true feast for the eyes.
The Glynn Vivian Gallery and Brangwyn Hall has on display quite a few of Brangwyn’s beautiful preparatory cartoons. He was a brillant draughtsman.
Interestingly he used modern technology to aid him; photography. The squaring up technique is one that artists have used for centuries, and is still used today by many (including me). If you look closely at the murals you can see the feint pencil lines of the grids he used.
The animals and people are incredible but the foilage of each country has also been painstakingly researched. I initally thought that the mass of green were sort of generic foliage but when I looked athe panel for England I was blown away when I realised that I recognised every type of leaf and flower; oak leaves, horsechestnuts, sunflowers, pears, apples, foxgoves, irises, blueblues. This is true for all the panels.
I particularly enjoyed the details at the bottpom of the panels as they were at eye level. There were lots of tortoises, rabbits, bugs, butterfies and reptiles. The only thing thatappeared to be missiong were fish and aquautic mammals! In the 1930s, before colour television and nature programs (and the nearest zoo in Bristol) this riot of creatures must have been quite a relevation for the people of Swansea.
His evident enthusiasm for the British empire was somewhat out-of-step with the increasingly introspective times of the inter-war years. Interestingly, his treatment of the different and diverse peoples of the British Empire was powerful and energetic. There are plenty of impressive female breasts but the women are strong and vital figures, not overtly sexualised. Perhaps, his celebration of empire makes for uncomfortable viewing in a post-empire world. Yet, the men and women of the Empire are depicted with dignity and sympathy, and the accent throughout is on the people, animals and plants of the conquered countries rather than on the activities of the conquerors.
Sadly, the rejection of the Panels by the Lords devasted Brangwyn and it caused lasting depression in Brangwyn. He became increasingly pessimistic and a hypochondriac and began disposing of his possessions during the 1930s. This is so sad as these murals are so wonderful!