Frank Brangwyn was born in Bruges in 1867, the son of William Curtis Brangwyn, a celebrated architect and painter in his own right. During the second half of the 19th century Bruges boasted a large English community of artists attracted by the artistic atmosphere of this medieval town, but also by a cheaper lifestyle. Brangwyn's father too left his mark on the city even designing a throne that was used to display the relic, the Blood of Christ, kept in the Holy Blood Chapel in Bruges. Though the family was to return to England and settle in London when Brangwyn was only seven, he was to entertain a lifelong connection with the city of his birth, culminating in the opening of the Brangwyn Museum in the Arentshuis in Bruges in 1936. Brangwyn donated many of his works that are on show in the museum that is today known as the Arentshuis or 'Arents House' named after the Arents family that once lived here.
Laurence Van Kerkhoven (pictured above) is the assistant curator of the Arentshuis: "Brangwyn is difficult to label and cannot be pigeonholed. He was a child of his time and was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement working in William Morris's studio in London for two years. But Brangwyn is also a proponent of the Art Nouveau. He first attracted international fame after Siegfried Bing got him to help in the design of his Art Nouveau Gallery in Paris and championed his art. Later work displays the characteristics of the Art Deco, while many of his paintings are clearly influenced by impressionism. Brangwyn was immensely productive and there is an incredible range to his work. He painted, made etchings, murals and earthenware, designed interiors, textiles and furniture."
"Brangwyn clearly enjoyed variety and it's unlikely that he possessed the application to concentrate on studies. The artist had talent and it was Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo who was the first to notice this when he discovered him sketching in the South Kensington Museum, which was later to become London's V&A. His early work bears a clear Neo-Gothic stamp. The two years he worked in William Morris's studio in Bloomsbury were well spent. Wallpaper designed by William Morris was to inspire one of his greatest works: a carpet (photo below) designed for Siegfried Bing's Art Nouveau Gallery in Paris. It is the only Brangwyn carpet still in existence and was purchased by the Arentshuis in 1986 where it is still on show."
The first exhibition dedicated entirely to the work of Brangwyn was staged at the Royal Academy in London in 1885. Brangwyn had always been fascinated by the sea and his first paintings show ships and the life of fishermen. By the end of the 1880's he had started to travel exploring the coasts of the Mediterranean from Morocco to Egypt. During his trips he occupied himself producing sketches that would inspire his paintings for many years to come. Later he journeys further afield visiting South Africa with fellow painter William Hunt. Italy, Spain and France become routine haunts.
Brangwyn gains international fame in 1895 when Siegfried Bing becomes his mentor and he designs murals for Bing's Art Nouveau Gallery in Paris. It is Bing who encourages Brangwyn to explore different forms of art. He designs art glass and produces lithos as well as posters. Brangwyn also becomes an enthusiastic collector of ceramics. He was especially interested in art work from China and Japan and many of the pieces that he collected can be seen in the V&A in London and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Brangwyn also made his own ceramics and several pieces of earthenware designed by Brangwyn and produced by Royal Doulton are on show in Bruges.
The artist marries Lucy Ray, a nurse, and his travels become rarer. He designs his first 'Gesamtkunstwerk' conceiving a bedroom for industrialist Edmund Davis including the murals, furniture and details even down to the bedspread. In 1905 Brangwyn designs the British pavilion at the Venice Biennial. Copies of furniture from this exhibition are today on show in the Arentshuis in Bruges. Many of the works displayed at the museum can also be seen in display cases that Brangwyn conceived especially for the Bruges museum. Brangwyn also designed the British pavilion at the world exhibition in Ghent in 1913. A chair and table from this pavilion can today be seen at the Arentshuis.
After the war, from 1925 to 1933, he spent many years working on the British Empire Panels. Intended for the House of Lords, the panels were initially to focus on the conflict, but then Brangwyn decided to illustrate the richness of the British Empire and show what all the sacrifice was for. The work was seen as too modern for the House of Lords and ended up in Brangwyn Hall in Swansea (Wales), all bar one panel that is on display in Bruges. It is exhibited together with carpet above.
Laurence Van Kerkhoven: "Only one complete interior designed by Brangwyn remains in existence: at the Casa Cuseni in Taormina in Sicily. The Arentshuis also boasts designs for murals for the Empress of Britain (photo top), a luxury liner whose dining room Brangwyn designed in his most productive year, 1930. Tables, chairs and wall hangings are all designed by the Englishman. At the Arentshuis don't miss the design for a mural for the Empress of Britain."
Brangwyn also enjoyed a fruitful relationship with furniture makers Pollard, who executed his bedroom designs, while Royal Doulton produced a very popular series of tableware designed by the artist. Royal Doulton earthenware of the Harvest series is on show in Bruges.
Laurence Van Kerkhoven: "As is evident from the Bruges museum and its numerous etchings Brangwyn was fascinated by the lives of people struggling to make a living, whether they be fishermen, farm workers or industrial labourers. Many works were commissioned by church authorities. In Bruges you can admire Brangwyn's Stations of the Cross in which the artist and his dog also make a cameo appearance with Brangwyn carrying the cross. Don't miss the many colour etchings. Brangwyn collaborated with Japan's Yoshijiro Urushibara. Brangwyn painted water colours turned into colour etchings by the Japanese artist." (photo below)
You will find the Arentshuis at Dijver 16 in Bruges. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 to 5PM. The house that was Frank Brangwyn's birthplace is just around the corner.