Manitoba History: Forgotten Artist: Sir Frank Brangwyn: 1867-1956

by Angela E. Davis
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 7, Spring 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In the Rotunda of Manitoba’s Legislative Building, over the main entrance to the Legislative Chamber, is a mural by the English artist, Sir Frank Brangwyn. Although he is one of those artists whose work has suffered an eclipse in popularity and whose name is almost forgotten, Frank Brangwyn was, at the time of the creation of the Winnipeg mural, one of England’s most famous artists. He exhibited all over Europe and North America; he had a one-man show at the Venice Biennale of 1914; and he was the only artist to have a one-man show in his lifetime at the Royal Academy. He was a member of all the leading art societies of England and Scotland, becoming a member of the Royal Academy in 1919. He was knighted by King George VI in 1941. For Manitobans in 1920, therefore, a work by such an esteemed artist was of considerable importance. His mural in the Legislative Building remains important today as an art-historical document and as a reminder of the influences acting on local artists of the time.

It is difficult to understand why Brangwyn is virtually unknown today. It might be thought that his work was in the critically unpopular style of Victorian sentimentality. Far from it: his art still appears strong and colourful, encompassing a wide spectrum of subject-matter and media. It seems probable, instead, that it was the very fact of his prodigious output and his variety of work which caused the post-Victorian critics, Roger Fry in particular, to ridicule him and to lead to his subsequent removal from studies in English art history. He was, in Rosemary Treble’s words, “terribly un-British.” [1]

Frank Brangwyn was born in Bruges, Belgium, in 1867, the son of Anglo-Welsh parents. His father, William Curtis Brangwyn, was a well-known church architect who was in Bruges establishing a workshop for the reproduction of Gothic tapestries. The family returned to England in 1875 where his father experienced financial difficulties, necessitating an early working life for the young Brangwyn. Although most sources suggest that he received his early training from his father, he was no doubt a child prodigy. At the age of thirteen he was haunting the museums of South Kensington, drawing from the exhibits of paintings, sculpture, archaeological finds and mounted animals. [2] His studies attracted the attention of Arthur MacMurdo, one of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement. Through MacMurdo he was introduced to the Renaissance masters, in particular Mantegna; their influence can be seen in the monumental murals he was to create later in his career. [3]

MacMurdo also encouraged him to make botanical studies of plants and flowers. The knowledge he acquired while doing so was of great value when in 1882 he met William Morris who subsequently took him into his studio as an assistant. There he worked on the enlargements for Morris’s designs, turning them into full-size cartoons for the Morris firm’s wallpapers, embroideries, carpets and tapestries. [4] The experience gained with Morris extended beyond the training in decorative composition to an absorption of many of Morris’s political ideas. Brangwyn never became seriously politically committed, but he was always concerned with portraying the life and work of the common people—even if in the context of the Imperial tradition. William Gaunt describes him as “a Kipling chastened by the socialism of William Morris.” [5]

In 1885, he left Morris’s firm and went on what one writer calls “a youthful vagabondage.” [6] He worked as a labourer in the towns and harbours off the Kent coast and as a deckhand on a schooner, drawing and sketching in his spare time. At the end of the year he sent a small oil painting of the River Esk to the Academy. It was accepted just before his eighteenth birthday. From then on he began selling his paintings of sea and harbour life, and in the following year began a series of journeys abroad. But his travels were not on the usual tourist route of the time. His early visits were to Algeria and Morocco, Asia Minor and Russia, Spain and Rumania, South Africa, Malaya and Japan. [7] He made hundreds of sketches, returning to England for short periods of time to turn his sketches into oils and water-colours which began to be sold as soon as he produced them. By 1890 he was well-established as a practicing artist and various oils produced over the next few years secured his international reputation as an artist of importance. In 1894 he received gold medals at the Chicago Exhibition and in 1895 had a painting in the Paris Salon which was bought by the French government for the Luxembourg Palace. [8]

The French had already praised his oil, “Buccaneers,” which had been shown at the Salon in 1893, and by 1897 he had become a regular exhibitor at the Venice Biennale. This important art show-place had started its support of contemporary artists in 1895, including in 1897 such renowned figures as Rodin, Monet, Redon and Puvis de Chavannes. Succeeding years exhibited the work of Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley and Vuillard among others. [9] Obviously the jury considered Brangwyn on a par with the leading French “moderns.” As in the case of Delacroix, the colour and vitality of the countries he had visited influenced his work. Rosemary Treble says that “he heated his palette almost to boiling point and chose subjects for maximum dramatic, not to say melodramatic effects.” She feels that it was this aspect of his art which led to his unpopularity with the English critics. [10] If this is so then it is perhaps possible to understand why Roger Fry was so critical of Brangwyn’s works in the early years of the present century. For Fry, art and human experience were separate things—he had “a profound aversion for art which is deliberately employed as the vehicle of personal emotion.” [11] The vivid murals which Brangwyn produced during the years 1904 to 1934 only resulted in the comment from Fry that they were done in the “cafeteria style.” [12]

There are, however, other factors which might help to account for the criticism his work received from the English critics, because certainly his professional reputation was much higher in Europe and North America than in England. G. S. Sandilands, in an introduction to a book of Brangwyn’s watercolours, says, “there is no trace of the early English water-colourists, Brangwyn never having studied these men with the idea of developing on orthodox lines.” [13] His art in all media was somehow un-English for the time, both in its ancestry, with the exception of Morris, and in its variety. Not only did he produce oils and murals, but he was also a fine water-colourist, a wood-engraver and printer, a furniture and stained-glass designer, and a decorator of buildings and interiors. In 1895, for example, when he was twenty-eight, he designed the facade for the first gallery devoted entirely to the “new art” in Paris. The dealer, Samuel Bing, opened his gallery “L’Art Nouveau” on the corner of two streets, Rue de Provence and Rue Chauchot. Leading art nouveau artists, Henry van der Velde and Victor Horta were also involved in the project and at one point it looked as if Horta’s designs would be accepted. But Brangwyn’s were finally used: they were for a painted frieze over sixty yards long for the exterior walls, entitled “La Roi au chantier,” and for two panels, “Music” and “Dancing” for the entrance. [14] The result was not very English in appearance.

It is also suggested that Brangwyn was influenced negatively by the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage, seen by some critics as an academic artist of limited importance. But Lepage was an under-estimated artist who united elements of both realism and romanticism in his work to produce what Helen Gardner calls “a perfect compromise.” [15] Similarly, Walter Crane, writing in 1911, refers to the influence of Millet on Brangwyn. He notes that Brangwyn was not revolutionary or political in his art—instead he preferred an “observed realism.” [16] If one combines the influence of Millet with the traditions of Morris and with Brangwyn’s love of colour, then an art similar to Lepage’s “compromise” would seem to describe Brangwyn’s as well. The subject-matter is frequently romantic and the style a decorative realism, especially in the murals. Unfortunately, it was the murals which affronted the critics more than any other aspect of Brangwyn’s work.

This, of course, did not interfere with the popularity of the murals with the general public or with official bodies. Brangwyn created them for buildings in the United States, Japan and Canada as well as for the Royal Exchange, the Skinners’ Hall and Oldham’s Press in London. [17] They frequently show the inheritance of Morris’s humanistic ideas. Around the top of the lunette in the Oldham Press entrance, for example, there is a band with the words “The Printed Word Makes the People of the World One.” [18] And the Winnipeg mural, although officially titled “Canada’s War Record,” is a plea for peace more than a memorial to war. Of this work, Herbert Furst, in his study of Brangwyn’s decorative art, says “Brangwyn has succeeded in making his allegory of War a veritable human document.” [19] Canadian soldiers of the First World War are shown behind the lines in France. They are seen giving comfort to the wounded, eating, digging, resting, playing the concertina, against a background which contains the symbol of death in the form of a large siege gun, and the symbol of life in a small shrine of the Madonna and Child. Also, in the foreground, are new flowers and grass demonstrating, in Ferdinand Eckhardt’s words, that “only when man is following peaceful pursuits is he in tune with nature.” [20] It is difficult to see what could be so objectionable about such works. Certainly they support the view of one of Brangwyn’s admirers that his main concern was “to bring Art back to the people.” [21]

Nevertheless, in spite of their popularity, it was the murals which led to Brangwyn’s loss of critical acceptability. In 1925 he was commissioned to create eighteen panels for the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords. Originally planned to be a war memorial, the theme was changed to that of the British Empire. Brangwyn proposed that the panels would glorify “the riches and natural beauties of the Empire, symbolizing the heritage for which many had died in the First World War, rather than the fact of their death.” [22] In 1930 five of the completed panels were shown to the Royal Fine Art Commission for approval and, to Brangwyn’s bitter disappointment, were not accepted. The decision resulted in a public outcry and a debate in the House of Lords, but the panels were still rejected. Sources mention two factors which could have led to the judgement of the Commission: the superb draughtsmanship of Brangwyn, “in a tradition already beginning to be discredited in the late twenties,” [23] and his love of colour and exoticism. The panels were “a profusion of motifs drawn from all over the world, a rich brightly-hued tapestry of allusions to Africa, India, Burma and Canada, teeming with humanity and exotic birds and beasts.” This “riot of bright colour”—romantic and emotional—intimidated the Commission when considered for a gallery noted for “the gloomy melancholy of its decorations.” As Dennis Farr points out, the panels would, in fact, have made a perfect complement to the works already in situ. [24] But London’s loss was Swansea’s gain. Brangwyn was able to finish the panels and they were installed in the new Guildhall of Swansea, Wales.

Brangwyn’s final murals were for the Rockefeller Centre in Radio City, New York. In 1934 he was commissioned with Diego Rivera and Jose Maria Sert to contribute four panels on the theme “Man at the Crossroads.” He was almost forgotten in the controversy over Rivera’s mural which was destroyed because it contained a picture of Lenin. But Brangwyn also had his problems. He had to remove a portrayal of Christ—in fact he had to repaint Christ with his back turned to the viewing public! As Bertram Wolfe says, Brangwyn had to turn Christ’s back “upon the Temple of the Money Changers.” [25]

Criticism did not affect Brangwyn’s approach to his work. He continued to follow his own standards. His etchings, wood-engravings and water-colours echo the influences found in his oils and murals. In the medium of water-colour alone he has to be considered a master, although as Norman Kent remarks, “it seems convenient for present day English critics to neglect him in their surveys.” [26] This is certainly true. Major biographies were written in 1910, 1915 and 1924. He is in books on English water-colour artists and wood-engravers published in the twenties and earlier, but from the forties on, except in reference works, art historians say little about him. Nevertheless, he was honoured throughout his lifetime—although admittedly more abroad than in England. He exhibited in most major exhibitions on the Continent and in 1914 was given his own show in the main building of the Venice Biennale. Also, in spite of the harping of the critics, he exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. In 1924 he was given a retrospective exhibition at Queen’s Gate which was opened by the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and in 1952, four years before his death, the Royal Academy gave him an unprecented one-man show—the first time such an honour had been given to a living artist. [27]

In 1919, then, when commissioned to decorate the new Legislative Building of Manitoba, Brangwyn was at the height of his fame. He was, as Dr. Eckhardt notes, “one of the most celebrated artists of the Commonwealth.” [28] The work is not a true mural, but a traditional oil on canvas, painted in the artist’s studio in England and transferred to the Rotunda. It is to be regretted that its placement makes it extremely difficult to appreciate a work by this historically important artist. But Brandwyn’s significance for Manitobans beyond the immediate value of the memorial to the dead of the First World War. Dr. Eckhardt, in 150 Years of Art in Manitoba, emphasizes the importance of Brangwyn’s influence on Lionel LeMoine Fitzgerald’s landscape paintings, [29] while Walter J. Phillips was influenced by Brangwyn’s protege, the Japanese print-maker, Urushibara. [30] The latter subsequently made prints of both Phillips’ and Brangwyn’s works. If, therefore, Manitobans recognize Fitzgerald and Phillips as their two most important artists to date, then it is also necessary to remember Frank Brangwyn.

It is obvious that the fickleness of critical fashion is something which artists cannot be expected to appreciate. Brangwyn’s working life spanned such a long period of time and change—from the world of Queen Victoria to the late fifties—that it would be impossible for his work to be understood by “all the people all the time.” On the one hand he was accused of being too modern, on the other of not being Modern enough. And an English artist whose heritage included such diverse influences as Morris and Millet, Delacroix and Bastien-Lepage, who was capable of working in a multitude of media, and who was able, without loss of style, to provide designs for every-thing from chairs to travel posters, was bound to be misunderstood. As Rosemary Treble says,

Brangwyn posed a threat to every system of aesthetic order, a challenge which can be seen as thoroughly therapeutic in retrospective but which was deeply unsettling to his beleaguered contemporaries. And so he became the ultimate example held up to students of the post-Fry generations of how not to be an artist. The ostentation of his exuberance was, after all, terribly un-British. [31]

It is in Belgium, France and Wales that there are museums devoted to his art, not England. But, in 1980, there were shows at the Fine Arts Society in London, at the Polytechnic in Brighton and the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield. Perhaps the resurgent respect for realist art will also apply to the work of Frank Brangwyn. His important contribution to Manitoban art may then be recognized, and his rightful place in the history of English art restored.


1. Rosemary Treble, “The Art of Frank Brangwyn,” Burlington Magazine, 122 (June, 1980), p. 447.

2. Norman Kent, “Frank Brangwyn,” American Artist 20 (May, 1956) pp. 18-23.

3. Clifford Musgrave, “Sir Frank Brangwyn, R.A.: Grand Old Man of British Painting,” The Studio, 145 (April, 1953), p. 138.

4. Ibid.

5. William Grant, “English Painting of Today,” The Studio, 113 (June, 1937), p. 297.

6. Kent, “Frank Brangwyn,” p. 23.

7. Ibid, p. 53.

8. Ibid.

9. Hugh Honour, “Biennales of other days: a cautionary tale,” Apollo, 84 (July, 1966) p. 31.

10. Treble, “The Art of Frank Brangwyn,” p. 447

11. Soloman Fishman, The Interpretation of Art (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963), p. 139.

12. “First one man exhibition of living artist at Royal Academy,” Art News, 51 (December, 1952), p. 65.

13. G. S. Sandilands, Famous Water-colour Painters: I—Frank Brangwyn, R.A. (London: “The Studio,” Ltd., 1928), p. 2.

14. Martin Eidelberg and Suzanne Henrion-Giele, “Horta and Bing: An Unwritten Episode of L’Art Nouveau,” The Burlington Magazine, 119 (November, 1977), p. 751.

15. Helen Gardner, Art through the Ages, 7th ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980), p. 774.

16. Walter Crane, William Morris to Whistler, (London: G. Bell, 1911), pp. 91-92.

17. Herbert Furst, The Decorative Art of Frank Brangwyn, (London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1922) passim.

18. Gaunt, “English Painting of Today,” p. 297.

19. Furst, The Decorative Art of Frank Brangwyn, p. 141.

20. Ferdinand Eckhardt, 150 Years of Art in Manitoba (Winnipeg: The Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1970), p. 15. See also A. A. Stoughton “The New Manitoba Parliament Building,” Construction, 14 (March, 1921), p. 73.

21. “Tis”, Masters of Modern Art: Frank Brangwyn R.A. (London: Colour Ltd., n.d.), p. 6.

22. Martin Battersby, The Decorative Thirties (London: Studio Vista, 1971), p. 131.

23. Ibid., p. 132.

24. Dennis Farr, English Art 1870-1940 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), p. 335.

25. Bertram D. Wolfe, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (New York: Stein and Day, 1963), pp. 332-3.

26. Kent, “Frank Brangwyn,” p. 54.

27. Ibid., p. 18.

28. Eckhardt, 150 Years of Art in Manitoba, p. 15.

29. Ibid.

30. Roger H. Boulet, The Tranquility and the Turbulence: The Life and Work of Walter J. Phillips (Markham, Ontario: M. B. Loates Publishing Ltd., 1981), p. 75. See also Malcolm C. Salaman, The Woodcut of Today: At Home and Abroad (London: The Studio, 1927).

31. Treble, “The Art of Frank Brangwyn,” p. 447.

Page revised: 27 October 2012