The Bridge (Pont Vieux, Albi, France), Oil on board, 19 x 28 inches , £15,750
Frank Brangwyn: the last of the polymaths. Few people are aware of the vast scope of his energies. Although he had little education and no formal art training, he was a natural draughtsman, and over the years took on the mantle of oil-painter, water-colourist, etcher, mural painter, architect, and designer of interior schemes, furniture, stained glass, mosaic, carpets, pottery and jewellery.
At the start of the twentieth century he was the one British artist whose work was revered by the European cognoscenti, and the Japanese recognised in his artistic endeavours a love of simplicity, geometric compositions, and clarity of colour. He worked for Bing and Tiffany and produced murals for four North American public buildings.
Brangwyn was a complicated man, a man of contradictions and extremes - a lover of humanity who spurned social contact; a naturally restless spirit who became a virtual recluse in his own house; a supremely charitable man with a reputation for being irascible; a pacifist whose brutal WWI poster Put Strength in the Final Blow (1918) reputedly led the Kaiser to put a price on his head. The man whom G K Chesterton described as ‘the most masculine of modern men of genius’ could also produce exquisitely delicate and serene works like St Patrick in the Forest (Christ’s Hospital murals); and his oils are as voluptuous in colour and form as his furniture is minimalist.
The more one learns about Brangwyn’s art, the closer one gets to the essence of the man. His paintings, whatever the title, are usually concerned with the dignity of human labour, and the working man. Grand churches disappear behind ships’ rigging or markets or processions, worthy Skinners or Carpenter’s Company Officials have no more precedence than the shirt sleeved or half dressed porters and sailors who populate Brangwyn’s world. As an outsider he didn’t expect to gain a grandstand view of important events, and so the gallery gazer is frequently presented with the back of a saint or important personage, whilst life, the life of Auden’s Musée Des Beaux Arts, carries on regardless.
There are recurring themes throughout Brangwyn’s vast artistic output. His love of architecture, ships, churches, windmills and bridges is obvious; the Mediterranean earthenware pots in all shapes and sizes occur in paintings representing all ages and countries; a cornucopia of fruit and flowers indicate the pleasure he took in the simple joys of life; and the subtlety, power, and range of his signature blues is astounding.
He had an overactive mind and temperament, hands that could never keep still, and he was only happy when working, rarely resisting a challenge. Despite his phenomenal output his work maintains a remarkably consistent high standard