This antique framed etching dates to 1919 and is a wonderful, large example by the noted British fine artist and illustrator Frank Brangwyn. The artwork retains its original ornate Arts & Crafts aesthetic gold carved frame and original glass. The image shows an atmospheric night time scene of Cannon Street Station, in London. Brangwyn was a prolific creator of fine art etchings, in 1926 the important fine art magazine The Studio published “The Etchings of Frank Brangwyn”, a catalogue raisonne, with reproductions of over 330 of his etchings.
Biography of Frank Brangwyn courtesy of Brown University Library
Frank Brangwyn was born in 1867 in Bruges, Belgium. His family moved back to London in 1875 where he attended school until 1879, when he left as much out of boredom as necessity. His father worked as an architect, muralist, and in other arts-related crafts. Frank helped around the studio and continued his own artistic education by copying drawings at what was to become the Victoria and Albert Museum. His abilities attracted the notice of more established artists and at the age of 15 he was working for William Morris getting rudimentary training and preparing designs for many aspects of Morris’ Arts and Crafts output. In 1885, with nothing much more than youthful enthusiasm, he submitted a painting to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and was accepted – at the age of 17. Spurred by this success he rented a studio and began a period of productive poverty.
With little money, his early work revolved around the sea where traditional subjects for British art were moored and made docile models. This is considered his “grey” period and the limited palette may be due as much to limited funds as to artistic intent. His 1890 canvas, “Funeral At Sea” is typical of this period and won a gold medal at the 1891 Paris Salon. The young artist was making waves.
In 1888, he worked on a freighter for passage to the Near East of Istanbul and the Black Sea. Orientalism was a major force in European art at the time and Brangwyn was as seduced as many artists were with the colors and light of the Mediterranean and African coasts. These trips brought a new palette to his work and something new to British art. The Buccaneers, at right, is from 1892 and the difference between it and his “grey” period is dramatic.
Just as we have movie critics today, art critics proliferated during the 19th century. Walter Shaw Sparrow, in his excellent “Frank Brangwyn and His Work”, devotes several chapters to the reaction of these critics to Brangwyn’s art. Opinions were as varied as the two styles shown here, but what is most interesting is the degree of attention being paid to the work of a self-taught 25-year old. Whatever their views of his work, he was not being taken lightly. Not surprisingly, the bright hues and intense light of his new style were not appreciated by the establishment.
To put his work in historic perspective, this was a period of Impressionism, Art Nouveau, and the Munich and Vienna Secessions. In British art, Sargent, Whistler, Waterhouse and Draper were popular. Lord Leighton, Burne-Jones and Alma-Tadema were still active. Brangwyn was following none of these men and the critics were at a loss as to how to pigeonhole him. The continental critics in France, Munich and Vienna had no such trouble. He was seen as a most modern and successful artist from the beginning.
For his part, Brangwyn followed his own muse and in doing so found himself at the vanguard of the art world. In 1892 he began working as the designer for the new art magazine, “The Graphic”. In 1895 he was asked to paint murals for the notorious gallery, L’Art Nouveau, in Paris. He won medals for his work in Munich and Paris. At the age of 30, while Britain puzzled over how to evaluate his work, the rest of the world viewed him as the definition of modern British art.
He illustrated books: “Don Quixote” in 1895, “A Spliced Yarn” in 1899, “The Spirit of the Age” in 1905, “The Last Flight of the Revenge” in 1908, a “Rubaiyat” in 1909 and “Eothen” in 1913 (with paintings dated from 1896 and 1897 – see image at right).
His illustrations found eager audiences in the American magazines. “Scribners” ran his illustrations as early as 1893, recognizing his talent before many of his countrymen. Both “The Century” and “McClures” were markets as well – though much later.
He worked in watercolor – when The Studio started a series of Famous Water-Colour Painters, Frank Brangwyn was the lead-off title.
He revelled in etchings, doing hundreds on a wide variety of subjects. When The Studio started their series of “Famous Etchers”, you-know-who was #1 (and one of only two artists to be given two volumes). In 1926, The Studio published “The Etchings of Frank Brangwyn” – a catalogue “raisonne”, with reproductions of over 330 etchings.
He painted murals, his most famous being those for Skinners Hall, the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco, and the British Empire Panels for the House of Lords. After completion, these sumptuous panels were rejected by the House of Lords and were never installed.
There’s also an American connection with the mural work of Dean Cornwell. At the same time that Brangwyn was working on the Empire Panels, Cornwell had won a commission to create the murals for the Los Angeles Public Library. In 1927, Cornwell put his illustration career on hold for three years and went to England to study and work with Brangwyn, who had the space and tools to create murals of any size.
He drew – most often overlooked in the rush to lionize his paintings and etchings are the marvelous and powerful preparatory drawings that preceded them all. Books like “The Prints and Drawings of Frank Brangwyn” and “The Drawings of Sir Frank Brangwyn, R.A.” do much to remedy that oversight. Above center is one of the preliminary studies for a panel of the Skinners Hall murals.
He practiced the lessons he’d learned from William Morris and produced designs for the “decorative arts” – wallpaper, stained glass, furniture, lamps, even the interior of The Empress of Britain, a luxury ocean liner (sadly his realized vision was torpedoed in WWII).
Brangwyn’s talent was never bounded by one or two facets. He illustrated two books on bridges, a subject of many of his paintings and etchings. “The Bridge” and “A Book of Bridges” are two different books. He was also fascinated with windmills and illustrated a book on that subject as well. He loved Venice. “The Pageant of Venice” from 1922 was the natural result. Belgium was the subject of another history. His bookplates were collected into yet another volume.
Two fascinating “biographies” of Brangwyn were written by William de Belleroche: “Brangwyn Talks” and “Brangwyn’s Pilgrimage”. Both are extracted from numerous discussions and interviews with the artist. Pilgrimage is dotted with vibrant new drawings and both present the personality and history of FB in a fresh and vital manner.
Brangwyn died in 1956, an all-but-forgotten footnote in the history of art. His influence is still being felt today, albeit mainly third or fourth hand through artists who may not even know his name.