Sir Frank lived a long and productive life and has left us a treasure trove of his work that spans the dawn of impressionism to modern art. His production was prolific and he was an in-demand artist throughout his lifetime. A royal achievement indeed!
He was born in Bruges, Belgium, where his father had moved after winning a competition organised by the Belgian Guild of St Thomas and St Luke to design a parish church. His forenames were registered as Guillaume François. In 1874 the family moved back to the United Kingdom. He married Lucy Ray in 1896. She died childless in 1924.
In 1936 Brangwyn presented Bruges with over 400 works, now in the Arents House Museum. In return the King of Belgium made Brangwyn Grand Officer of the Order of Leopold II, and Bruges made him Citoyen d’Honneur de Bruges (only the third time the award had been given).
Frank Brangwyn received some artistic training, probably from his father, and later from Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and in the workshops of William Morris, but he was largely an autodidact without a formal artistic education. When, at the age of seventeen, one of his paintings was accepted at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, he was strengthened in his conviction to become an artist.
Initially he painted traditional subjects about the sea and life on the seas. His canvas, Funeral At Sea (1890) won a medal of the 3rd class at the 1891 Paris Salon. The limited palette in this painting is typical of his Newlyn period (although he was not officially a Newlyn artist).
By the late 19th century Orientalism had become a favoured theme for many painters. Soon Brangwyn was attracted by the light and the bright colours of these southern countries. He travelled toIstanbul and the Black Sea, by working as a deck hand for his passage. He made many paintings and drawings, particularly of Spain, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey. This resulted in a marked lightening of his palette, a change which did not initially find critical favor. He continued his travels to different parts of Africa and also to South Africa.
In 1895 the Parisian art dealer Siegfried Bing commissioned Brangwyn to decorate the exterior of his Galerie L’Art Nouveau, and encouraged Brangwyn into new avenues: murals, tapestry and carpet designs, posters and designs for stained glass to be produced by Louis Comfort Tiffany. For his austere but decorative designs he was recognized by continental and US critics as a prominent artist, while British critics were puzzled as how to evaluate him.
In 1908 Brangwyn was commissioned to paint the apse of St Aidan’s Church, Leeds, but after it was realised that the air pollution would damage the paint it was agreed he should work in glass mosaic. The mosaic (using Rust’s vitreous mosaic) was completed in 1916: it covers the whole apse and shows the life of St Aidan.
Other commissions included murals for the Great Hall of the Worshipful Company of Skinners, London (1901–1909), the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915 (now in the Herbst Theatre, Veteran’s Building Auditorium, San Francisco), a Lunette for Cuyahoga County Courthouse, Cleveland, Ohio (1911–1915), the Manitoba Legislative Building, Winnipeg (1918–1921), the Chapel, Christ’s Hospital School, Horsham (1912–1923), and the Missouri State Capitol, Jefferson City (1915–1925).]
Although Brangwyn produced over 80 poster designs during the First World War, he was not an official war artist. His grim poster of a Tommy bayoneting an enemy soldier (“Put Strength in the Final Blow: Buy War Bonds”) caused deep offence in both Britain and Germany. The Kaiser himself is said to have put a price on Brangwyn’s head after seeing the image.
Brangwyn is best known for the British Empire Panels (1925–1932), 16 very large works covering 3,000 sq ft (280 m2) originally intended for the Royal Gallery at the House of Lords at Westminster, but refused because they were “too colourful and lively” for the location. They are now housed in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea.
Along with Diego Rivera and Josep Maria Sert, he was chosen by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to decorate the concourse of the RCA Building in New York City (1930–34) with murals. A sequence of large murals on canvas (originally from Horton House, Northamptonshire) is held by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Dunedin, New Zealand. He was also chosen to decorate the 1st class dining room of the Canadian Pacific liner, RMSEmpress of Britain (1930–1931)].
Brangwyn was an artistic jack-of-all-trades. As well as paintings and drawings, he produced designs for stained glass, furniture, ceramics, table glassware, buildings and interiors, was a lithographer and woodcutter and was an illustrator of books. In 1952 Clifford Musgrave estimated that Brangwyn had produced over 12,000 works. He collaborated with Japanese Urushibara Mokuchu on a series of woodblock prints. Brangwyn’s 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 furniture, and 20 stained glass panels and windows.
Towards the end of his life, Brangwyn donated many of his own and other artworks to museums and galleries of Britain and Europe. In 1944, he recovered and secured designs by Frederic Shields for the Chapel of the Ascension built by Herbert Horne which was destroyed in 1940 during the London Blitz. In 1950 one of his last works was to provide the illustrations for Sixty Years of Yachts by Herbert Julyan, a good friend.