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Frank Brangwyn and Swansea's Empire panels

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Laura Chamberlain Laura Chamberlain | 15:01 UK time, Friday, 11 May 2012

The vibrant panels that adorn the walls of Brangwyn Hall at Swansea's Guildhall are some of the finest examples of the decorative, large-scale mural work of British artist Sir Frank Brangwyn.

145 years on since his birth, on 13 May 1867, the name Brangwyn will always be closely associated with Swansea due to the panels. However, the Guildhall was not the original destination for the paintings.

The interior of the Brangwyn Hall, taken in 1949

The interior of the Brangwyn Hall. Photo taken in 1949

The panels were an original commission from the House of Lords.They voted in 1925 to commemorate the dead of World War One with a memorial that would sit in the the Royal Gallery at the Palace of Westminster.

The Royal Gallery, 100ft long and 45ft high, was - and still is - dominated by two giant paintings by Daniel Maclise. Depicting battles scenes from the Napoleonic wars, the vibrant colours used by Maclise in the paintings deteriorated drastically within two years of their hanging, and continued to fade thereafter.

The new art work was expected to compliment the faded paintings by Maclise, and would be painted in a series of 16 panels to fill the north and south walls of the gallery, covering an area of 3,000 square feet.

Lord Iveagh, Edward Guinness, was in charge of the commission and provided the fee of £20,000 at his personal expense - a huge amount of money for an artistic commission in the 1920s. He chose Frank Brangwyn as the artist to complete the task.

Brangwyn was born to a Welsh mother and English father in Bruges in 1867. He had no formal training but was incredibly versatile; his artistic output ranged from oil paintings to interior design and he had a reputation for large-scale mural work. This, together with the fact that he was one of the most famous and successful artists in Britain in the early part of the 20th century, made him the obvious choice for the commission.

Brangwyn worked on the large-scale war panels during 1925-6. They were in the same military vein as Maclise’s paintings and depicted events from World War One. Yet after months of working on the panels both he and his patron Lord Iveagh decided that the subject of war was wrong, and that the panels should be more optimistic and uplifting. Brangwyn later donated the panels to the National Museum Wales in Cardiff, where they now hang in the main hall.

Brangwyn restarted the commission with a new theme concentrated on the beauty of the Great Britain that would show the riches of the British Empire, and what the British forces had fought for during the war.

The new decorative and wildly colourful panels showed the people, beauty and the produce of the Empire, although the idea of the British Empire was fast become outmoded at the time. Scenes on the new panels included themes of fantasy, fruit, flora and fauna, from his studies of animals at London Zoo, and images from his travels.

Sadly Lord Iveagh died in October 1927, when Brangwyn had only completed only five of the 16 panels. Though Lord Iveagh’s trustees agreed to honour the commission the other peers repeatedly demanded to see the artist’s progress. The one condition that Brangwyn had made with Iveagh at the start of the commission was that he was able to work without interruption and that he wouldn’t have to show his work to anyone until the entire scheme was complete.

He had to relent and the five completed panels were erected in the Royal Gallery for the committee to view. They decided, with the advice of the Royal Fine Art Commission, that they were not suitable to be housed in the House of Lords. They were deemed inappropriate and too exuberant for the gallery as they wouldn’t sit in harmony with Maclise’s sombre paintings.

The rejection of the panels was a crushing blow for Brangwyn. He was encouraged by Iveagh’s trustees to complete the commission despite the decision and eventually finished the panels in October 1932 after seven years work.

In 1933 it was announced that the panels would be given to a municipality or a body who could house and display them. The panels were shown at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London in 1933 and happened to be viewed by Swansea councillor Leslie Hefferman.

The Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, in 1949, with the panels visible on the right

The Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, in 1949, with the panels visible on the right

Hefferman was determined to bring the panels to Swansea but faced competition from other cities such as Cardiff, Liverpool and Birmingham who had also expressed an interest in housing the panels.

By chance, the Guildhall in Swansea was still in construction in 1933 and the architectural plans of the building could be adjusted - the ceiling height in particlular - to account for the huge panels. It was successfully selected by the trustees and in September 1934 the panels were transported to Swansea and installed in their new permanent home.

The Brangwyn Hall at the Guildhall, Swansea was officially opened on 23 October 1934 by HRH the Duke of Kent.

Brangwyn donated all the studies and preparatory drawings related to the panels to Swansea council, and are now displayed in the corridors of the Guildhall. It is thought that Brangwyn never made the journey to Swansea to see all 16 of his panels in their complete glory. He died on 11 June 1956.

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