Eight mural panels by Sir Frank Brangwyn RA (1867 - 1956) have gone on public display for the first time at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft
in a remarkable new exhibition. The large-scale paintings were commissioned by The Skinners Company between 1901 and 1912 for Skinners Hall in London and depict key moments in the history of the ancient City of London Livery company, which can trace its origins to pre-Roman times. The murals chart the history of the guild from the unregulated mediaeval fur trade in the 13th century, to the height of its political influence and ties to successive monarchs in the 16th and 17th centuries, through to its growing emphasis on philanthropy and education by the 19th century. The museum plays host to the panels while Skinners Hall undergoes restoration work, offering the public a unique opportunity to see these colossal works of art which are over 2.5 metres in length and span from floor to ceiling, in the village Brangwyn called home in his later years.
The Skinners murals demonstrate Brangwyns preference for sumptuous, rich tones stippled with vivid pockets of vibrant colour, inspired by his study of the Dutch masters. His travels to North Africa and Turkey are credited with inspiring a brighter palette in his later work and this is particularly noticeable in the final two Skinners Hall murals; Education and Charity (1937) which are on display. The panels, which are usually set above a three-metre-high wainscot in the banqueting hall, are being presented in a new context, hung at eye level within the intimate setting of the museum.
Also revealed in the murals is Brangwyns interest in representing ordinary people in his work, once proclaiming that history never records the poor. Perhaps rooted in his belief that art should be for and about everyone, he often forefronts the less important characters in his murals. In Sir Andrew Judds founding of Tonbridge School, 1553 a young pupil takes centre stage and in Lord Mayor Pilkington entertaining the King + Queen, 1689 Brangwyn depicts the servants in the foreground rather than Sir Thomas Pilkington, former Lord Mayor and Master of the Skinners Company, entertaining the newly appointed King William III and Queen Mary who succeeded the throne following the deposition of James II.
Brangwyn often invited local people to pose for his murals and many of these models reappear frequently throughout his work in the guise of different characters. The exhibition showcases some of his photographic studies and sketches for the Skinners murals alongside other key commissions including the British Empire murals (1925-32) and New York City's Rockefeller murals (1930-34) in which he staged Ditchling villagers, including actor Donald Sinden who was Brangwyn's neighbour when a boy. Brangwyn also painted himself into his work and Education includes a self portrait as a school master. Visitors will be invited to assume the role of the local models and stage their own mural study with the help of costumes and props.
The series of spirited panels depict, as the Court of the Skinners Company requested in 1901, the stir and colour of the long-drawn pageant of the guild. The works depict topics chosen by the famous pelt company to reinforce its importance to trade and by extension the British Empire. Brangwyn also had both a commercial and cultural association with the British Empire most notably due to his 1926 commission of large panels on the theme of the Empire for the House of Lords, which were controversially rejected in 1930 on the grounds that they were too colourful. The Skinners murals reflect prevailing attitudes to colonialism and the primacy of Empire at this historic period and the museum is working with guest Associate Curator Tony Kalume to provide a contemporary reading of the work. A modern reimagining of Brangwyns Education panel is being presented in the Main Gallery in the form of a life-size photograph by Katie Van Dyke staged at Brangwyns Ditchling residence, modelled by young people from the local area.
Brangwyn was a prolific artist in both talent and scale. He worked for William Morris in his early career, and like his master he was active in a variety of fields. Brangwyn was a skilled etcher and lithographer, painter, illustrator, draughtsman and designed furniture, textiles and ceramics and the exhibition will also explore these aspects of his practice including his designs for Royal Doulton. Brangwyn also created over 1,000 original etchings in his lifetime, several of which are being featured in the exhibition. His draughtsmanship and technical skill is evident in these works, including Cannon Street Station (1913) showing the hubbub and grime of the busy London station and Demolition of the Post Office (1913) in which the ruins of a building are captured. Much like the murals, the etchings are exercises in scale with many spanning over a metre in width.
Brangwyn owned property in Ditchling from 1917 until his death in 1956 and the exhibition also provides context for his time spent in the villages thriving artist community, displaying his etchings and photographic studies, ceramics and furniture alongside works by his peers including Ethel Mairet, Amy Sawyer, Charles Knight, Louis Ginnett, Hilary Pepler and Edward Johnston.
Steph Fuller, Director and CEO of Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft said: When the Skinners Company generously offered the museum the opportunity to show the Brangwyn murals whilst the restoration of their Great Hall took place, I jumped at the chance. Im thrilled that we are now able to showcase these paintings in the village where they were created, using local people as subjects. Its a once in a lifetime opportunity to see them up close and personal, so not to be missed!