From empire to environment: inside the Brangwyn Hall

September 4, 2014 5 Comments

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It was a Monday morning a few weeks ago and I was taking some photos of the outside of the Brangwyn Hall. A motor caravan had parked in the bay in front. A man leaned out of its window and kindly promised to move out of the way and let me perfect my Leni Riefenstahl view of the quasi-fascist facade (that last clause was my thought, not his comment).

It turned out he and his partner were visiting from Burton-upon-Trent. They’d been staying in Gower and wondered what Swansea had to offer. I told them that this morning the Council were offering guided tours of the Brangwyn Hall, only very recently re-opened after a long period of renovation. They seemed interested and said they’d park nearby and take a tour.

Our guide gave us a comprehensive tour – not just of the Brangwyn but also other parts of the Guildhall – and explained its origins, in the grim conditions after the Crash of 1929. Unemployment in Swansea rose sharply and political pressure grew for capital projects that would employ large numbers of out-of-work men. The aldermen of Swansea seized the opportunity to make an impression on unemployment and to build a much-needed new town hall, all with the help of a grant from central government.

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The architect Percy Thomas of Cardiff won the competition to design the new building, on part of the existing Victoria Park, which belonged to the Council. Construction began in 1930 and the building was opened on 23 October 1934. It was deliberately intended, unusually for the time, I should guess, to house a mix of public and administrative functions, with Council chamber and committee rooms and municipal offices side by side with a public hall and law courts. (It’s only quite recently that the old West Glamorgan County Hall, originally planned as an exclusively bureaucratic building, has been converted into a similar Civic Centre mix, with library, archives and other public functions added.)

The Guildhall’s exterior, faced in Portland stone, is bold and stark. Its style is an ornament-free classicism now generally associated with the public architecture of the Italy of Mussolini. Unfairly perhaps, since it was an idiom commonplace in Europe and beyond in the 1930s, though it takes only a little effort to imagine a Swansea Duce marching down the broad steps of the Brangwyn Hall from the three massive recessed arches at its entrance.

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The tall rectangular clock tower isn’t a happy addition. The best that can be said for it is that it signals the Guildhall’s location from far away, down the long straight sightlines of Oystermouth Road and Oxford Street, and across Swansea Bay. Among other rather fussy features at its apex a balcony projects on all four sides in the form of the prow of a Viking ship. This refers to Swansea’s alleged Scandinavian origins, though the only evidence for them is the debateable etymology of ‘Swansea’ as ‘Sweyn’s Eye’. But could there also be a professional allusion, I wonder, to contemporary Scandinavian architecture and design, with which progressive British architects were familiar in the 1930s? At that time designers in Sweden, Denmark and Finland were busily binning their old ornament books in favour of styles that favoured clean lines, flat surfaces and a severe, functional approach.

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The inside of the Guildhall seems more successful. Again, deviation from flat planes and simple construction is sparing – the committee rooms are particularly bare of features that might distract councillors from their serious duties – but when Percy Thomas throws his puritanism to the winds the effect is stunning: the coffered ceiling of the Grand Corridor, the columned Council Chamber with its long tapestry (based on paintings by William Grant Murray) showing a procession of the Gorsedd of Bards at the National Eisteddfod, and the Brangwyn Hall itself, a simple shoebox shape (ideal acoustically for classical concerts) but with unique decoration. You can also play the game ‘Spot the Viking’, since the Norse theme of the clock tower is echoed again and again in details inside the building: bronze handrail terminals turn into the prows and sterns of warships, and masks of Sweyn and his friends from the north, helmeted and big-bearded, stare down at you menacingly from above.

We were taken to see the inside of the Brangwyn Hall itself. Strangely, though, our guide omitted to tell us the curious story of the Brangwyn panel that adorn its walls.

Though little known today Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) was one of the most prolific and most famous British painters of his time (though he was born in Belgium). He produced hundreds of conventional oil paintings but his forte and greatest love was mural paintings, which he began producing in 1899. The ‘British Empire Panels’ were commissioned from him by Lord Iveagh in 1925 (without proper consultation with his fellow peers) to be the chief memorial in the House of Lords of the First World War. Brangwyn’s first designs were of tanks in action on the battlefield and of troops departing for the front, but in June 1926 he and Iveagh rejected this idea in favour of a depiction of the Empire: ‘decorative paintings representing various Dominions and Parts of the British Empire’ – ‘the great British Empire that these gallants [the sons of peers] helped to save’. ‘My theme’, said Brangwyn, ‘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’.

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Work began on the panels, but unfortunately Iveagh died in October 1927. The Royal Fine Art Commission, which had been brought in to judge the suitability of Brangwyn’s work, pronounced against his designs. Though five panels were temporarily displayed in the House of Lords in March 1930 opinion remained hostile. The Commission could see little connection between them and the idea of Empire and declared them ‘inappropriate’ (always the bureaucrat’s favourite word for saying no without saying why). The Times’s art correspondent, on the other hand, thought that ‘it is only because they avoid successfully the less admirable side of the idea of Empire which is associated with conquest and company promoting’. Finally the House of Lords, following a debate on 3 April 1930, rejected the designs outright. The panels, half complete, were left homeless, and Brangwyn distraught.

Finally complete by October 1932, after seven years in the making, the panels now belonged to the heir of Lord Iveagh, who had them displayed at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition in Olympia in 1933, to keep them in the public eye. So it was that they came to the attention of the Swansea aldermen, who made a financial bid, with an eye to mounting them in their still-to-be-completed Hall. The offer was accepted, and so the panels, joined later by Brangwyn’s gift of the preparatory drawings, came to Swansea. The height of the Hall’s ceiling had to be increased slightly to accommodate the tallest of the panels.

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The best phrase to sum up the subject of the panels is Brangwyn’s own, the ‘multitudinous resource’ of Empire – the variety and fecundity of its combined natural resources. Almost every inch of the 2,000 square feet is covered with flora and fauna from every imperial land, in the manner of a tapestry. Brangwyn admired 15th century ‘verdure’ (‘green’) French tapestries, and exotic carpets (‘I love carpets’, he once said).

Plants, many of them giant-sized and all of them rampant, predominate. Animals of all kinds – the unusual ones Brangwyn observed closely in London Zoo – peep out of this foliage: a rhinoceros, parrots and peacocks, swans, pelicans, gazelles, reindeer, a tortoise, rabbits. And occasionally we catch sight of people, usually engaged in some kind of physical labour. The treatment is almost completely flat: everything is on the same plane, and perspective is in any case impossible, since there’s no empty space to be seen. Colours are varied but curiously ‘bleached’, rather than, as you might expect, vivid and contrasted. The effect on the viewer, as the art historian Alan Powers says, is unusual: ‘These compositions seem intended to immerse the viewer, in a manner not unlike a wide screen colour film of the kind that did not then exist’.

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Frank Brangwyn doesn’t seem to have held a critical view of Britain’s empire. On the contrary, he was a willing publicist for its reach and power. Nevertheless, the native 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.

Almost exactly 80 years after the Brangwyn Hall was opened, on 23 October 1934, we have the opportunity to view the panels in a very different way from the people of Swansea who first saw them. Perhaps we can set aside assumptions and convictions (historic and contemporary) about empire. Instead, we might consider Brangwyn’s utopia, if utopia it is, in the light of our own urgent concerns about the fragility and rapid destruction of the natural world we inhabit. Brangwyn’s global men and women seem to live in harmony with their habitats. Though they exploit its produce they do so without endangering the future of the woods and jungles that surround them. The rainforests and woodlands still stand, unfelled. Brangwyn’s is a vision of a better, greener planet, one we are in grave danger of losing forever, in our lust for immediate profit and unsustainable exploitation.

We took our leave of the Hall, and our guide went to greet the next party of visitors. The man from Burton-upon-Trent turned to me and remarked what a treasure the people of Swansea have on their doorstep. If a Brangwyn Hall existed in his town, he said, what a jewel that would be.

More on Swansea Guildhall, Frank Brangwyn and the Empire Panels

J.R. Alban, ed, The Guildhall, Swansea: essays to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, Swansea: City of Swansea, 1984.

Rodney Brangwyn, Brangwyn, London: William Kimber, 1978.

Alan Powers, ‘The murals of Frank Brangwyn’, in Libby Horner and Gillian Naylor, eds., Frank Brangwyn 1867-1956, Leeds: Leeds Museums, [2006].

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  1. rita tait says:

    I was brought up in Newport where the Council followed with their Civic Centre, a few years afterwards. Their Hans Feibusch murals were probably demanded in order that we could hold our heads up when visiting Swansea. I must make an effort to see the newly opened Brangwyn Hall now as I always had a soft spot for it and your piece was most informative. I wonder if the cafe selling traditional Welsh breakfasts is still nearby though it was over 30 years since I last went there.

  2. Alun Burge says:

    Spectacular image of the Council Chamber…

    Could the Brangwyn become a stop on a tourist destination of Swansea along with the Museum and the (to be) reopened Glynn Vivian Art Gallery?

  3. Chris Edwards says:

    The “mix of public and administrative functions” was also evident in Southampton’s impressive 1930’s Civic Centre, which once included law courts alongside the Council Chamber and offices, and still offers a fine art gallery, library, and performance space. (The law courts and an extension completed in 2012 now house the Sea City maritime museum.) Southampton’s Civic Centre is the keystone for an ambitious culture and education-led regeneration of what had become a rather neglected part of town. These quasi-modernist civic centres might have the whiff of Mussolini about them, but the actual intention of providing space and stimulus for public discourse was anything but fascist. Thanks for another interesting piece, Andrew.

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