Frank Brangwyn’s British Empire Panels

March 9, 2018 4 Comments

1          Introduction

Most Swansea people are familiar with the British Empire Panels.  Many sitting through a dull patch in a concert in the Brangwyn Hall will have turned to ponder Frank Brangwyn’s enormous work. 

In a few months’ time the Panels will get more exposure, as Marc Rees’s performance piece Nawr yr arwr / Now the hero, devised to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, leads its audience from the shore of Swansea Bay into the Brangwyn Hall.

But who was Frank Brangwyn?  How did the Panels arise?  Why, if they were originally intended for the House of Lords, did they end up in Swansea? And what about their subject and style?  Have they things to say to us today, when Empire is only a memory?

2          Frank Brangwyn

E.O. Hoppé, William Brangwyn (1909)

Frank Brangywn is almost forgotten today, but he was celebrated in his day, especially outside the UK.  He enjoyed a long life (1867-1956) and a long career.  As an artist and designer he was highly prolific, and he worked in many media.  Rodney Brangwyn, his grandson and biographer, wrote, ‘I think Brangywn did too much work … his output was prodigious and the execution of some of his works careless  … everything he did during the last 25 years of his life is unimportant’.  This may be a harsh assessment, but it helps to explain the eclipse of Brangwyn’s reputation.

His father, William Curtis Brangwyn, was English, with possible Welsh antecedents.  His mother, Eleanor Griffiths from Brecon or Radnorshire, was Welsh.  Frank was born in Bruges in Belgium.  All three countries were significant for him.  He lived for most of his life in London and Sussex, and most of his work was done there.  He was alive to his Welsh connection, and made donations (or bequests) not only to Swansea but also to the National Museum of Wales and Bangor University.  He was attached to Belgium, and his wider Continental background – he was a member of the Munich and Vienna Secessions – gave him an international artistic perspective wider than that of many of his British contemporaries.

William Curtis Brangwyn was an ecclesiastical architect and textile designer, and cabinet maker.  After his period in Bruges he moved to London in 1875 – and later still, in 1880, he moved to Cardiff, dying there in 1907.  As a boy Frank was interested in art and design.  Though he received no formal artistic education he was drawn to the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, and began sketching drawings, encouraged by two artists, Harold Rathbone and Arthur Mackmurdo.   Aged 15 he became an apprentice to William Morris’s Queen Square business, where he trained as a draughtsman before moving on to work with glass, inlay, embroidery and wallpaper. 

After leaving William Morris Brangwyn led an unsettled, hand-to-mouth existence in London and on the south coast of England, all the while trying out his skills in drawing and painting.  In 1885, aged just 17, he submitted a painting entitled A bit on the Esk near Whitby to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and was accepted.

Burial at sea (1890)

Brangwyn’s earliest paintings to attract wide attention arose from his travels – first to Cornwall in 1887, and later abroad.  He joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and spent much time on board ship.  His maritime paintings, such as All hands shorten sail (1889) and Burial at sea (1890) are impressive and helped build his reputation.  He was clearly influenced by the French realist painters of the Barbizon School and their interest in showing people at manual work in the countryside.  Digging is especially French in feel.  Self-portrait with miners sets the artist in heroic mode alongside industrial workers.

The Buccaneers (1892)

Brangwyn’s travels abroad had a dramatic effect on his style.  From 1890 he visited Turkey, North Africa, Spain, Romania, Russia and South Africa.  These trips provided him with the subjects of many oil paintings, in which he used a bolder and much more colourful style.  Fishermen at Funchai (1891) is a typical example.  Brangywn was no doubt influenced by the Scottish colourist Arthur Melville, who befriended him and took him on a trip to Spain in 1891.   These paintings were admired on the continent.  Even that arch-modernist Wassily Kandinsky was impressed.  In his On the spiritual in art (1912) he claims that Brangwyn was ‘probably one of the first artists of yesterday to introduce this juxtaposition [of red and blue] into his early paintings’.   Kandinsky may have been thinking of The buccaneers, which caused much attention when it was exhibited in London in 1893, and later in Paris.

Painting was far from being Brangywn’s only medium.   He produced innumerable drawings and over a thousand prints (etchings, lithographs and woodcuts).  Many of the prints were used as illustrations in books and periodicals.  He was also a keen and talented designer, working with chairs, furniture, carpets, ceramics, glassware and stained glass, metalware and house interiors.

His interest in mural painting started in 1895, when he was asked by the art dealer Siegfried Bing to paint a frieze on an external facade of his Maison de l’Art Nouveau in Paris.   Next came large panels for the Skinners Hall in London in 1904-09.  After that decorating walls became one of his regular commissioned jobs.  He worked for companies, exhibitions and governments in countries around the world, including the US and Japan. 

Brangwyn was at the height of his fame and activity around the First World War and received numerous honours throughout Europe for his art and decorative work.   He was not an official war artist, but willingly allowed his art to be used as propaganda in support of the conflict.  His poster for war bonds, Put strength in the final blow, proved controversial.  It was rumoured that the Kaiser himself was so outraged by its brutality that he put a price on Brangwyn’s head.   

It’s worth noting that by this time, despite Kandinsky, Brangwyn was regarded as an old-fashioned artist by the avant-garde.  He was denounced as a traditionalist by the Vorticists Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound in both of their Blast manifestos, in July 1914 and July 1915.

3          The British Empire Panels

Royal Gallery

In 1834 the old Palace of Westminster was almost entirely destroyed by fire.  As part of its reconstruction from 1840 Prince Albert, who chaired the Fine Art Commission, was keen to adorn the new building with decoration, especially a series of British history paintings.  At this time royal decisions were influential, but on the coronation of George V in 1910 artistic decisions in the Palace were passed to the House of Lords.   After the end of the First World War the peers wished to commemorate members and their families who had lost their lives in the conflict.  The location they chose was the Royal Gallery.   They entrusted the task of commissioning work to Edward Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh.  At the time he was the richest man in Ireland, thanks to the brewery he owned – by 1886 he was brewing almost a million hogsheads of stout a year – and he was able to retire at the age of forty and indulge his taste as an art connoisseur: the Iveagh Bequest in Kenwood House in London was his collection.  In 1924 he commissioned Frank Brangwyn to paint panels for the walls of the Royal Gallery.  He promised to pay the cost of them, £20,000, from his own pocket.  It was an offer this fellow peers could hardly refuse.

Frank Brangwyn was an obvious choice for Lord Iveagh.  The two knew each other.  Brangywn was at the height of his fame.  And he had already completed World War commemoration works, including the Canadian War Memorial in Winnipeg. 

John Balantyne, Daniel Maclise painting the Death of Nelson (1865)

For Brangwyn the commission was one of his greatest – though it was not without its challenges.  The Royal Gallery was large – 110 ft long, 45 ft wide and 45 ft tall – and dark: Brangwyn described it as ‘heavy, bilious and stuffy’.  Around 3,000 square feet were available.  But the space was no blank canvas.  Art works already occupied parts of it: a commemorative sculpture by John Tweed, commissioned in 1924, and two much older works by Daniel Maclise.  Maclise had been invited by Prince Albert to fill part of the east and west walls with two paintings, each 45 feet long, of two scenes from the Napoleonic Wars, The death of Nelson and The meeting of Wellington and Blücher.

A tank in action (1926)

Brangwyn’s first idea was to complement Maclise’s pictures with sixteen new commemorative panels to fill the north and south walls.  He set to work immediately.  In 1926 he presented to Lord Iveagh two large panels, in tempera on canvas, entitled A tank in action and A heavy gun in action.  These were direct representations of armed conflict, in a style mildly influenced by some of the war artists.  These were rejected by Lord Iveagh, and by Brangwyn himself, possibly, as too direct, too brutal and too abstract to be suitable for the Gallery.  In 1931 Brangwyn donated A tank in action to the National Museum of Wales, where it can be seen in the main hall.

His next scheme depended on heraldic decoration to celebrate the family trees of peers, but this idea was rapidly rejected as too repetitive and monotonous. Then Brangywn developed a third, completely fresh conception, based on the riches of the British Empire.  The intention was ‘to fill the spaces on the walls … with decorative paintings representing various dominions and parts of the British Empire’.  This plan avoided direct treatment of the conflict and instead concentrated on what men from Britain and the Empire had been fighting for.  In a newspaper Brangywn was quoted as saying, ‘my theme is the Empire, in all its majesty and multitudinous resource, for that, as I see it, is the most fitting commemoration of the things for which we fought’.

Iveagh and Brangwyn signed a formal agreement in June 1926.  The artist would be paid £2,000, plus £1,800 on erection of the paintings in the Royal Gallery.  There would be no interference in his artistic choices, and the panels would not be displayed publicly until they were fully complete.  Both men must have suspected that some members of the House of Lords might intervene or even sabotage Brangwyn’s work. 

Then disaster struck.  Lord Iveagh died in October 1927.  Brangwyn’s other principal supporter, Lord Lincolnshire, Lord Great Chamberlain, died in 1928.   Brangwyn had completed only five of the sixteen panels.  To their credit the Trustees of Lord Iveagh agreed that the rest should be completed and paid for, but the Royal Fine Art Commission insisted, contrary to the agreement, that they should see the five panels finished so far.  Brangwyn was unhappy but felt he had no choice but to comply.  The panels were displayed on one of the end walls in the Royal Gallery.  The Fine Art Commission inspected them and on 20 February 1930 rejected them as unsuitable.  ‘The Commission fear’, they reported, ‘that Mr Brangwyn’s paintings will not harmonise with their surroundings.  While his paintings are brilliant in colouring, fertile in invention and full of fancy in their exuberant variety and treatment, their insistent motives ill accord with the Waterloo Chamber; the large paintings of tropical flora and fauna flanking the War Memorial and the historical cartoons would appear inappropriate’.  ‘It may be observed’, they continued, ‘that Mr Brangwyn’s paintings of oriental processions and exotic scenery indicate no connexion with the Empire as such …’

Public controversy followed this rejection, and many wrote to the press defending the panels.  But on 3 April 1930, having received the Commission’s report, the House of Lords debated the panels – and also rejected them.  Lord Newton said ‘they seem to me far too exuberant for our conventional and restrained surroundings’. Lord Donoughmore put the artist firmly in his place: ‘I hold very strongly to the theory that, whilst it is the duty of the artist to produce beautiful things for us to see, it is the business of the layperson to say whether they are beautiful or not, and about whether they are suitable or not’.   The Earl of Crawford, who chaired the Fine Art Commission, objected, according to the Daily News on 7 March, to excessive ‘tits and bananas’.  ‘Just imagine’, he roared, ‘five feet long bananas, with grinning black monkeys looking over them, in a room like this, with its historic association.  These new pictures might very well do for a night club; they are certainly out of place here’. 

Again there was a storm in the press, but the decision of the Lords was final.  Brangwyn was shattered by the rejection.  It is said that he wept when he heard the news.  Nevertheless, he pressed on with preparing the remaining panels, according to the agreement, finishing them in October 1932, seven years after he had begun work.  They were all stored temporarily at Kenwood. In 1933 it was announced that the panels would be given to a municipality or other body that was able to display them.  They were displayed in the spring at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition in Olympia, London.  They were seen there by a Swansea Councillor and local doctor called Leslie Hefferman.

4          Swansea

In Swansea a new Guildhall was under construction.  It was needed to replace the old Guildhall in Somerset Place, for long regarded as too small for a modern local authority.  Money was secured – some of it from central government, since construction was regarded as a job creation project as the economic depression took hold – and the foundation stone was laid in 1932.  The architect, Percy Thomas, happened to be an admirer of Frank Brangwyn, but it was Hefferman who persuaded his Council colleagues to bring the panels to Swansea and install them in the new public hall then being built.    The Council faced competition from other cities, including Cardiff, Liverpool and Birmingham, whose councils also expressed an interest in housing the panels, but in October Swansea won the day, probably because, with a minor adjustment to the height of the hall, they could be accommodated easily and quickly.  The panels were transported to Swansea and installed in their new permanent home, and the Brangwyn Hall was officially opened by the Duke of Kent on 23 October 1934.

Brangwyn donated all the studies and preparatory drawings related to the panels to Swansea council (until the recent modernisation these used to be displayed in the corridors of the Guildhall).  It is thought that Brangwyn never made the journey to Swansea to see all his panels in their final setting.  In a letter to friend he wrote, ‘no doubt you have seen that the panels have been given to Swansea.  They have a very fine building and the panels will look very well there, but it is not the place for which they were designed.  So they will not be seen as one would have wished.’

Despite his setback over the House of Lords panels Brangwyn continued to work and to accept commissions (a notable one was to provide the decor for the SS Empress of Britain in 1930).   And he continued to produce work in the style of the Swansea panels.  In 1935-36 he painted a semicircular work with the fine title The printed word makes the people of the world one for Odhams Press

5          The Panels

The British Empire Panels were painted in the large house Brangwyn had bought during the First World War in Ditchling, Sussex.  His choice may have been influenced by the fact that Eric Gill had settled there in 1906, establishing a retreat of fellow Catholic artists. 

There were sixteen panels in the original scheme, and two more were added when Brangwyn knew that Swansea was to be their home.  Six were long panels, originally intended for the end walls of the Royal Gallery, and the remainder were shorter.  They were not given names by Brangwyn.  An attempt was made to link individual panels with parts of the Empire (Canada, India, Burma and so on), but in fact the panels include flora and fauna indiscriminately from many parts of the world.

Brangwyn began work by sketching small drawings.  These were expanded by assistants using squaring to produce intermediate, quarter full-size cartoons, on grey paper (some were coloured with gouache).  Then the cartoons were used as a guide to the paintings.  Some of the latter were painted in oil, some in tempera, some in both.

The first thing most people notice about the panels is that the vegetable world predominates.  Plants, flowers and vegetables abound.  Brangwyn was a keen horticulturist: he kept exotic plants in his Hammersmith garden, brought back from overseas travels, and he also made visits to Kew Gardens to sketch plants there.  The panels include dozens of different plants, including gloxinia, ixora, chrysanthemums, camellias, eucalyptus and palm trees.

Animals are similarly various.  Lurking in the foliage one can spot a tortoise, parrot, peacock, gazelles, reindeer, tiger, monkey, swan, pelican, camel and giraffe.   Brangwyn visited London Zoo, and made meticulous drawings of a rhinoceros and other animals.  At home he sketched his wife’s parrot, and his own goat and dog.   

Human beings are rarer but reflect the wide ethnic mix of the Empire.  Often they are naked or half-clothed and usually engaged in ‘dignified’ forms of labour, reflecting a late form of ‘soft primitiveness’ that appealed to the much-travelled Brangwyn.  Again, he made numerous detailed studies for his human figures.  He was a keen Kodak photographer – 350 of them were discovered in 1990s – and clearly used photographs as the basis of panel figures.   He also drew from models persuaded to come to the Ditchling studio.  They included Marco Yofrate, a Italian chestnut seller (he carries a carpet in one panel), local villagers, and visitors, such as a West Indian wrestler and his three sons, and a woman servant from Barbados.

Abundance and variety, as represented in the countries of the Empire, are two key themes of the panels (Brangwyn’s word was ‘multitudinous’).  Another is fruitfulness (of the natural world) and productivity (of the human).  Brangwyn celebrates the generation of new life rather than mourning the destruction through conflict of existing life.  And a third central notion is that of harmony, of a world working in concord with itself.  Peace reigns throughout the work.  Conflict, violence and exploitation are absent.  Reconciliation and renewal follow war, as nature emerges triumphant after the blasted landscapes of the Western Front and men rebuild, as in the scene of bridge building, blessed by a rainbow overhead.  Though the panels are on an epic scale there are no heroics, and no chauvinism or jingoism.  Commemoration takes the form of a vision of future: a new Garden of Eden, a new utopia or a re-enchantment of the world.

This is not ‘historical’ painting.  The fact of Empire taken for granted, and so is its future – despite mounting evidence of the weakening of Britain as an economic force, especially after World War One, and increasing opposition to imperialism, from the Boer War onwards (Gandhi’s salt march in March-April 1930 was a protest against British salt monopoly).  In 1924 the British Empire Exhibition was staged at Wembley – Brangwyn designed scenery for a ‘Pageant of Empire’ there – but it was a defensive rather than triumphalist initiative and was not a financial success.   In 1926 the Empire Marketing Board was established, to promote trade and emigration, and ‘empire preference’.  This too was a defensive move, and was soon abolished, in 1933.  The Board had a lively line in posters and films – its film unit transmuted into the GPO Film Unit (and then the Crown Film Unit) which made outstanding documentaries under John Grierson.  Some of the EMB’s posters seem to share Brangwyn’s feeling for the ‘fecundity of Empire’.

The panels may be naturalistic detail, but hardly in totality.  Perspective is avoided and there’s no attempt to break the picture plane.  All is flat, uniform and two-dimensional.  Colours are light without being bright – though possibly they have faded somewhat over the years – and have a narrow tonal range.  The effect is one of saturation and immersion, with no way of penetrating through the picture space.  One critic, David Bell wrote, ‘it has been said that they are essentially wall-covering, and they belong more closely to the realm of tapestry, and even wall-paper, than to post-Renaissance oil-painting’.  The French verdure or garden tapestry style comes to mind, and it may be that William Morris’s influence was still very strong from Brangwyn’s youth.  One has to bear in mind that the panels were designed for a much darker space than the Brangwyn Hall, and that Brangwyn felt that he needed to respect Maclise’s existing paintings by not overpowering them.

There is one parallel I can think of for Barngwyn’s panels – the latest of the water lily paintings Claude Monet painted as Nymphéas.  These too were an oblique commemoration of the First World War – Monet presented them to the French state on the day of the armistice, 11 November 1918 – and have an immersive and transcendent effect, especially as they’re displayed in the two oval rooms of the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

For us today the Empire is long gone, except for a small number of extreme Brexit enthusiasts, and perhaps in retrospect the Royal Fine Art Commission was right to doubt the panels’ essential relevance to the theme of Empire.  Today what they suggest to us, above all else, is the preciousness and richness of the natural environment, in an age when there are so many threats to its future.  In the panels human figures don’t dominate nature – many of them are almost invisible – and they take their rightful, subordinate place among other life shared on the planet.  Human activity is ‘at scale’, it doesn’t threaten to damage the sustainability of the natural world.   And what human activity there is is constructive and cooperative (it’s interesting that women and children have such a prominent part in the panels).   Brangwyn’s vision of a green world in harmony with itself has a dreamy, almost hallucinogenic effect, like Monet’s, an ‘illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore’, in Brangywn’s words. This is a paradisal view of the future, where the planet is safe and humans can share the earth rather than ruthlessly dominating and exploiting it.


This article is based on a talk on the Brangwyn Panels given to the Swansea Branch of the University of the Third Age in Swansea University on 28 February 2018.

Comments (4)

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  1. Chris Armstrong says:

    Really interesting piece – I’m sorry I missed the talk. I have always loved the panels in the Brangwyn Hall, often studying them, as you suggest, during concerts! I first met them in my teens, when at weekends I worked for Harrises – the nurseries in Blackpill – who very often had the job of decorating the front of the stage… many the concert or talk that happened from behind our foliage! It is a particular coincidence as I was born not too far from Ditchling. I also remember the preparatory sketches and studies from the surrounding passages… I wonder what has happened to them.

  2. Colin Cheesman says:

    Thank you for this informative and wonderful blog about one of my favourite artists. It is well worth a visit to Arentshuis if you are in Brugges which has the whole of the upper floor dedicated to Brangwyn. We have been twice!

  3. Grahame Ware says:

    Andrew: You’ve hit it into the stands again! Wonderful piece with some thoughtful insights about the man.

  4. Menna Lloyd Williams says:

    Diddorol Andrew. Welais i un o’i luniau yn y Palau Nacional yn Barcelona ddydd Iau diwethaf.

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