JON STEVENS, MRES HISTORY OF ART
In the middle of February, I spent three days in Bruges undertaking preliminary research for my dissertation and taking in many of the artistic pleasures of this enigmatic city. On the second day, I met with Laurence Van Kerkhoven, Assistant Curator at the Groenigemuseum. She gave me details of the fin-de-siècle works in their collection and we discussed some of the ideas behind my dissertation. Then she took me around their permanent display of works by Frank Brangwyn, on the first floor of the Arentshuis, a fine eighteenth-century house that forms an annex to the main museum. I had seen the display before but this time Laurence drew my attention to Brangwyn’s various depictions of Bruges and she reflected on the diversity of his practice.
But who was Frank Brangwyn, I hear some of you say? He was born in Bruges in 1867, the son of William Brangwyn, a British architect and designer, who based himself in the city for some years. In 1874, the family returned to London and, around 1882, Frank was taken on by the studio of William Morris. He only spent two years there and, at the young age of 18, he launched his career as an artist, working from the start in a wide range of disciplines.
Brangwyn’s continuing connections with Bruges
Brangwyn always maintained his connections with Bruges and in 1936, towards the end of his career but when he was still highly regarded as an artist, he gifted a substantial body of work to the city of Bruges on the understanding that a museum would be created to display them. The museum remains popular but, beyond Bruges and even in his home country, Brangwyn is largely forgotten, despite his considerable reputation across Europe in the early twentieth century.
I asked Laurence about this. In her view, there are several reasons for the comparative neglect of Brangwyn. Partly, it may be due to the range of his practice, which is very much on show in Bruges. It may also be because his work cannot be pinned down stylistically; it doesn’t fit neatly into any one school or movement. It was also evident from the work on view that, in the 1920s, the quality of his work began to decline as he became increasingly detached from wider developments in the art world.
In Britain, he remained well thought of; he was knighted in 1941 and in 1952, four years before his death, he received the first retrospective of a living artist at the Royal Academy. But this was at a time when the ‘young-bloods’ of the Pop and Op art movements (Hamilton, Hockney, Riley et al.) were beginning to look outwards and in the process they turned their backs on most pre-1945 British art. Hence, after his death, Brangwyn and his work faded into relative obscurity.
The outstanding English artist of the time?
Yet at the beginning of his career, Brangwyn was perhaps seen as the outstanding English artist of the period and he had success in many different fields. In 1885, when he was only 18, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Two years later, his work was shown at the Paris Salon and, in the same year, he became a corresponding member of the Munich Secession. In 1895, he was commissioned by Siegfried Bing to provide murals for his newly-opened gallery in Paris – L’Art Nouveau – which was at the centre of this new movement. Two years later, he was a founding member of perhaps the most famous of the secessionist movements, the Vienna Secession, and, in 1899, he was commissioned to produce stained-glass designs for Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Thus, by the turn of the century, when he was just over 30, Brangwyn’s work was recognised and celebrated in Britain, across Europe and in the USA. In the following decade and a half, he was extraordinarily productive exhibiting widely and representing Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1905, at the Ghent World Exhibition in 1913 and at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1914.
The display in Bruges provides an excellent overview of his work during this period and later and I thought it might be of interest to highlight some of the pieces that caught my attention as I went round with Laurence.
Brangwyn as an interior designer
The two years Brangwyn spent in the William Morris studio gave him an idea of the importance of the decorative arts and he worked as an interior designer for all of his career. In the gallery, is one of his earliest commissions, a carpet design called ‘The Vine’, which he produced in 1896 for Bing’s, L’Art Nouveau. This was an impressive achievement for a young British artist; at a time when the decorative arts were seen across Europe as being on a par with the fine arts.
Another example of his work on show is a chair he designed for the British pavilion for the 1905 Venice Biennale. The simple lines of the chair, which formed part of a total scheme of decoration, show how his work was progressing away from Art Nouveau towards Art Deco at the very beginning of this movement.
Brangwyn as a colourist
In the meantime, Brangwyn was exhibiting his paintings widely. His practice as a painter was greatly influenced by his travels with fellow artists to Turkey, South African and Morocco. Perhaps his most significant companion was Arthur Melville, who he travelled to Spain with in 1892. Melville, who was 12 years older than Frank Brangwyn, was a member of the Glasgow Boys and an inspiration to the later Scottish Colourists. (Co-incidentally, one of Melville’s early works, The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, is currently on show upstairs in the Barber in the exhibition The Rhythm of Light: Scottish Colourists from the Fleming Collection).
By the 1890s, Melville had developed a free style of painting that clearly influenced Brangwyn’s early paintings, which – like Melville’s – are saturated with light and colour and full of human activity and movement. In Bruges, they have several examples of Brangwyn’s work from this period; notably Fishermen at Sea in a Squall of 1908, which exemplifies his fluid and exuberant style.
Brangwyn as a printmaker
Frank Brangwyn was a significant graphic artist and printmaker. His early work was much in Morris’s mould (as for example in a series of bookplates on display in Bruges) but his work, later, became darker and more expressionistic; as in his series of prints of railway stations. La Gare of 1910 shows his effective depiction of atmospheric effects and his expressive use of flowing, tangled lines.
Brangwyn, like many artists of the time, was influenced by Japanese prints and he took this interest further when, in 1910, he formed a highly successful partnership with a Japanese woodblock artist, Yoshijuro Urushibara. Brangwyn collaborated with Urishibara for the next 30 years; perhaps their most celebrated work is a series of coloured wood block prints for a book of poems on Bruges by the English poet and art historian, Laurence Binyon. The Beguinage, Bruges is a highly evocative image which channels earlier Symbolist views of Bruges (some of which are on view in the main gallery of the Groenigemuseum) and which reinterprets them in a pattern of delicate lines and misty tones with a tell-tale lit window (a typical Symbolist trope).
Brangwyn as a social commentator
Brangwyn’s work does not, on the whole, address social issues and concerns. However, the outbreak of the Great War, caused him to consider the impact of the conflict and his position as a British-based artist with connections in Belgium. Brangwyn did not become an official war artist but during the war he produced a large number of prints and images. Some of these tended to be jingoistic (as in his recruitment posters) but others were more reflective. Like many other artists and writers, he became aware of the human cost of the conflict and it should be noted that his colleague, Laurence Binyon, was a celebrated war poet.
Throughout the war and after, Brangwyn produced a series of powerful images highlighting the plight of refugees, starting with the mass displacement of people caused by the surprise and brutal German invasion of Belgium at the beginning of the war. His later Refugees of 1927 seeks to universalise the refugee experience at a time when many artists were seeking to consign the war to the past.
Brangwyn and the avant-garde
Laurence added that Frank Brangwyn and his work are in currently being re-evaluated. Her work at the Groeningemuseum has undoubtedly been important in keeping his reputation alive and, recently, several smaller British galleries have had exhibitions of work focusing on specific aspects of his overall practice (as in the William Morris Gallery’s Frank Brangwyn and the Art of Japan, held on the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2017, when I saw more of Brangwyn’s and Urishibara’s collaborative work). And back in 2006, Leeds Museums and Galleries held a broader retrospective of his life and work. This had an excellent accompanying publication with a series of essays on different aspects of his practice, which is in the Barber Fine Art library. Although the exhibition and the publication tends to underplay his Bruges works, which is curious considering it travelled to the Groeningemuseum.
Interest in Frank Brangwyn and in many of his English and Scottish contemporaries is growing (as per the Barber’s Scottish Colourists exhibition). Part of this reflects a wider understanding of the development of the pan-European avant-garde, when Brangwyn’s work came to the fore. The period between 1880 and 1914 was a time of unparalleled cultural dialogue and exchange and artists like Frank Brangwyn are now being re-assessed as significant participants in the avant-garde. Brangwn may not be a major figure but his early work and practice is in many ways emblematic and deserving of greater attention.