Born in Belgium to British parents, Frank Brangwyn received training from his father early on as a young man, eventually studying under Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo and in the workshops of William Morris. As a self-taught artist, Brangwyn tried his hand at many forms of art besides painting and drawing; including pottery, stained glass, posters, jewellery, furniture and interior decoration, architecture, illustration, and woodcutting, among others. Today he is well known for his wall murals, oil paintings, and war posters that he made as an unofficial war artist, and in total, it is estimated that Brangwyn produced more than 12,000 works during his lifetime.
Brangwyn’s mural commissions can be found all over the world, including New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Italy, and the United States, among others. He was commissioned for murals in the 1909 Royal Exchange in London, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, along with commissions for government buildings in Cleveland, OH, in Winnipeg, Horsham, and Jefferson City. He was also selected by John D. Rockefeller Jr., along with Diego Rivera and Josep Maria Sert to create murals for the RCA Building in New York City.
Brangwyn also did book illustrations, producing over 80 illustrations between 1890 and 1948. This work provided an extra source of income and self-advertisement for Brangwyn. He did several commissions for the famous Belgian poet, Emile Verhaeren, including illustrating his Les Villes Tentaculaires (The Sprawling Towns/The Tentacular Towns or Cities), which stemmed from Verhaeren’s concern for social problems at the time and was described as his “‘most ruggedly powerful book of poetry”. It offered a challenge to Brangwyn, pushing him to work outside of his comfort zone and create stunning architectural pieces that contrasted with his usual lively images of working men. Not much is known about their professional relationship, but in time, Emile Verhaeren became one of Brangwyn’s greatest admirers and even likened his work to that of Rembrandt.
As an unofficial war artist, he produced over 80 poster designs during the First World War, and donated them to charities like the Red Cross and American charity that benefited French orphanages. Because some of his posters were grim in nature and visually impactful, the German Kaiser even put a bounty on him. Portfolios of images were sold as prints or donated to support the war effort as well, and he donated artwork to towns that experienced heavy conflict to aid in reconstruction.
In the 1920s and 30s, Brangwyn was commissioned to paint two large murals for the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords at Westminster to commemorate peers and family members who had been killed during the war. He painted two battle scenes that were eventually rejected by the Lords because they were “too grim and disturbing”. They then asked him to paint a series that celebrated the English Empire for the Royal Gallery, known as the British Empire Panels. After five years of painting, the works were also rejected for being “too colorful and lively”. They were eventually purchased by the Swansea Council and hang in a hall named for Brangwyn.
This rejection was very demoralizing for Brangwyn, and he started disposing of his things shortly after. He donated much of his work to museums and galleries throughout Britain and Europe, donating a large amount to the city of Bruges. Brangwyn died in 1956 in Sussex, but his legacy lives on through the vast amount of great artwork found around the world that he created during his lifetime.
"Frank Brangwyn, Welsh Artist Painter" by Reinhold Thiele (1856-1921). URL.
"Old Houses (Ghent)" by Frank Brangwyn (British, 1867-1956). URL.
"National fund for the Welsh troops. Grand Matinee, St. David's day, March 1st, at the Alhambra, Leicester Square, W." by Frank Brangwyn (British, 1867-1956). URL.
Image of British Empire Panels, taken in 2009 by Nigel Davies. URL. License.