The permanent exhibition of Frank Brangwyn’s (1867-1956) work recognises that Brangwyn, whilst most of his life resident in the UK (and becoming a knight of the realm) was actually born in Bruges. His style is immediately recognisable, and cannot be pigeon holed into any movement even though he lived when many movements flourished. He also lived in the age of the maturing of the industrial revolution, when sail gave way to steam. His dark and foreboding etchings of the break-up of ‘men’o’war’ (e.g. HMS Britannia) in my view rival the far more celebrated JMW Turner’s Fighting Temeraire. For respect for the subject and without the sentimentality of a setting sun, Brangwyn thrusts the death of an era into the eye with an unrelenting vision of darkness even as the demolition takes place in broad sunlight. Industrial life features a lot in Brangwyn’s etchings, the steam and dark recesses against the light of furnaces catch muscular men shovelling, hammering metals, pouring molten iron – a bravura chiaroscuro use of the medium of etching.
Brangwyn’s muscular figures also populate his series of lithographs of the 14 Stations of the Cross. These could represent Jesus carting his great timber nemesis through a factory, where shafts of light penetrate the murk and the gaze of pressing crowds (and the occasional dog). This too shows a man hard at work and who like so many young men in the factories wouldn’t live for very much longer – the Great War and all. In these pictures pressing onlookers are eager spectators, pruriently engaged but curiously indifferent. Timber is hoisted around again, like the dismembered beam of an old ship. For technical brilliance I would locate Brangwyn’s etchings practically on the same plane as Rembrandt’s, but his woodcuts are no less accomplished. It’s good that this is a permanent exhibition. It’s like meeting an old friend each time I go. Had Brangwyn been part of a movement he may have been better remembered today. I can’t think of another artist of his period who did so much to capture ordinary – but extraordinary – labour.