The fascinating artwork of Frank Brangwyn goes on show at Horsham Museum

From left: Peter Burgess, Jeremy Knight, Laura Kidner, David Brangwyn and Rupert Toovey
From left: Peter Burgess, Jeremy Knight, Laura Kidner, David Brangwyn and Rupert Toovey

British art enthusiasts braved the bad weather on Friday evening (February 8) for the opening of a new exhibition celebrating the art of Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956).

The display, Brangwyn in Horsham, will be at Horsham Museum and Art Gallery until March 23.

Ceramics and etchings by Frank Brangwyn

Ceramics and etchings by Frank Brangwyn

The show is part of the Horsham District Year of Culture 2019.

It features three impressive drawings (or ‘cartoons’), which were the original designs for some of the murals on the walls of Christ’s Hospital chapel, as well as examples of Brangwyn’s pottery, paintings and etchings.

Horsham museum curator Jeremy Knight started the evening by thanking the guests for coming. These included Holbrook West councillor Peter Burgess, Rupert Toovey (senior director of Toovey’s fine art auction house), the curator for Christ’s Hospital Museum Laura Kidner, violinist Andrew Bernardi and David Brangwyn who made the trip down from Essex.

David, whose grandfather was Frank Brangwyn’s cousin, lent Horsham Museum a selection of the artist’s pottery.

The sketch of St Paul Shipwrecked

The sketch of St Paul Shipwrecked

“It’s always a delight to be in the fair county of Sussex,” he said, joking that the attendees belong to a “very select group” who admire Frank Brangwyn. This, he explained, set them apart from the “art blob” of London who believe that Brangwyn is out-of-date.

“It wasn’t always like this,” David continued. “If you scroll back to 1952, in that year the Royal Academy decided they wanted to hold for the first time a retrospective of a living artist. And who did they choose? Frank Brangwyn.”

Amusingly, Brangwyn did not actually want this exhibition to take place, complaining to the president of the RA Gerald Kelly that his best work was either abroad or destroyed. But, the organisation went ahead anyway and the show was a huge success.

“These days Frank Brangwyn is rather more appreciated outside these shores than he is here,” David said, explaining that you would usually have to visit Europe, the USA or even further afield to see his work on display.

The sketch of The Martyrdom of St Stephen

The sketch of The Martyrdom of St Stephen

“The last major exhibition of Brangwyn’s work was nine years ago in the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo,” he added.

But, David is confident that Brangwyn will come back into fashion once again.

Rupert Toovey is particularly pleased that Brangwyn’s work is on display in Horsham.

He said: “Frank Brangwyn is one of the most important artists of the early 20th century and very important for us as Sussex folk because he lived for many years in Ditchling, so there’s very strong associations with the county.”

More pottery on display

More pottery on display

Rupert, who feels that the exhibition is a must-see, said he admired the diversity of work on display (and all from a self-taught painter) but explained that his favourite piece was the drawing depicting St Wilfrid bringing Christianity to Sussex. Legend has it that no rain had fallen for three years in the land of the South Saxons, which was still pagan in the 600s, and the inhabitants only knew how to catch eels. However, St Wilfrid showed them how to catch fish and they caught 300 by casting their nets into the sea. Understandably, the people converted to Christianity soon after and, bizarrely, it started to rain on the day the province was baptised.

Laura Kidner, the museum curator for Christ’s Hospital and the main lender for this exhibition, did a lot of research for the show, which can be read on the panels next to the artwork.

According to Laura, this display reveals an artist who lived during a time when there were significant changes in the art world.

“Frank Brangwyn was born in the 1860s and worked for William Morris, who’s much more well known and connected to the Pre-Raphaelites,” she said. “But yet Brangwyn bridged the modern movements right through British art into the 1950s before he died. He was prodigious, he was prolific, he worked across the board in every craft from stained glass to ceramics to furniture, to paintings and to pottery.”

Unsurprisingly, Laura’s favourite pieces in this show are the drawings for Christ’s Hospital.

“They were used to be worked up for the murals, which are in the chapel, which people will be able to visit as part of the Year of Culture when our exhibition starts in April,” she explained.

Laura continued: “I think the time is right to revisit the work of Brangwyn because it’s a name that maybe isn’t a household name. His name sounds Welsh, he was Anglo-Welsh, but he was born in Bruges in Belgium and a lot of his work is around the world. But much of it is in the South East and Sussex collections so he’s very much locally orientated and he spent the last years, or many years of his life, in Ditchling.”

Speaking about the appeal of Brangwyn’s work, Laura said: “I love the figurative. I love the way he deals with earthy, ordinary, working class people on the street, and his work isn’t elitist. It’s not appealing to some sort of artistic elite. It’s about ordinary people. He used models that were just people he knew.”

Beggars, disabled people, people who were poor or not well dressed – Frank Brangwyn gave them important roles in his creations, Laura explained.

“He brought them into his studio and painted them and made them the important religious and historical figures in his panels.”

Horsham Museum and Art Gallery is open from Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm. Admission is free. For more information visit www.horshammuseum.org.

The exhibition is supported and sponsored by Christ’s Hospital Museum and Toovey’s Fine Art Auctioneers and Valuers.

A major exhibition on Brangwyn will take place at Christ’s Hospital Museum from April 23, where seven of the cartoons will be on display with the murals in the chapel.

Loxwood Joust 2019: Tickets available from Valentine’s Day. Click here to find out more.