Saturday 19 December 2015

29 The Brangwyn Panels

29. The Brangwyn Panels – 19 December 2015 (photo: three panels)

During the past fifty years the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority was sited in Morriston, the Welsh Maritime and Industrial Museum moved from Bute Street, Cardiff, to Swansea Marina, and the Wales National Swimming Pool relocated from Cardiff’s Empire Pool to near Singleton Hospital.  But before acquiring any of these, Swansea gained a fine asset by accommodating the British Empire Panels, better known as the Brangwyn Panels.

In the 1930s two acres of Victoria Park were taken for the site for a new Guildhall, to replace the Somerset Place building that is now the Dylan Thomas Centre.  That building had been erected in 1825-29, enlarged in 1848 and again later; but as early as 1907 it was evident that a larger building was needed for the additional responsibilities of local government.  The First World War and other matters delayed commencement, so the foundation stone of a new Guildhall was laid in May 1932.  As with building Cefn Coed Hospital, Tir John Power Station and the Mains Drainage Scheme, the government’s unemployment relief scheme facilitated the construction of Swansea’s new Guildhall.

While construction, which included an Assembly Hall on the southern side, was underway, news emerged that the trustees of Lord Iveagh were offering the British Empire Panels, painted by Sir Frank Brangwyn, to any corporation deemed able to house and display them worthily.  Councillor Leslie Hefferman viewed them, and on his return from London urged his colleagues to declare Swansea’s interest.

In 1924 the businessman and philanthropist Edward Guinness, Lord Iveagh, had offered to meet the cost of a mural painting to be placed in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, to commemorate peers killed in the First World War.  Frank Brangwyn, who had been apprenticed to William Morris, was a member of the Royal Academy, and who had served as an official First World War artist, was chosen for this commission.  His home in Sussex contained large enough studios for the scale of projects he undertook.  Having begun by producing large panels of war scenes (which can be seen in the National Museum of Wales), he set these aside to enhance the somewhat gloomy Royal Gallery with ‘decorative painting representing various dominions and parts of the British Empire’.  He wished to show a world of beauty and abundance, drawing on his wide travels and his studies of animals in London Zoo.

But Brangwyn’s main supporter Lord Iveagh died in 1927, and the Royal Commission on Fine Art insisted that the five panels then completed be displayed in the Royal Gallery: previously it was understood that only the entire completed set would be displayed.  Sadly the reception to the five panels was unfavourable – the members of the Commission felt that the work was unsuitable for where it was to be displayed.

After years of working on this huge undertaking Brangwyn was bitterly disappointed, but he completed the sixteen panels, which were displayed at the 1933 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia.  He considered the British Empire Panels, which took him seven years, to be his magnum opus.

Cardiff, where Brangwyn had lived, was among the municipalities interested in housing the panels, though since the ceiling height of the Assembly Hall under construction could be raised to accommodate them, it was to Swansea that the panels went, to what was named the Brangwyn Hall.  The Guildhall was opened in October 1934 by the Duke of Kent, youngest son of King George V, and Brangwyn generously presented many related drawings and studies to Swansea, some of which are displayed in the corridors of the Guildhall. 
The Brangwyn Hall seats around 1,200 people, and was Wales’s only large, purpose-built concert hall until St David's Hall opened in Cardiff.  Meanwhile the British Empire panels, deemed too colourful and lively for the House of Lords, can be appreciated by concert-goers and visitors alike in Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall.  

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