The name of Frank Brangwyn may fall upon unresponsive ears; yet he has a Continental reputation and is easily the foremost English impressionist. New York has seen but little of his work; if we mistake not, there was a large piece of his, a Gipsy Tinker in the open air, hung several seasons ago at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Mr. Kennedy shows extraordinary etchings of his at the Wunderlich Galleries. We call them extraordinary not alone because of their size, but also because Brangwyn is practically the first among latter-day artists to apply boldly to etching the methods of the impressionists. Etching in its essential nature is an impressionistic art. We do not mean to assert that Brangwyn uses the dot or dash or broken dabs in his plates, for the very good reason that he is working in black and white; nevertheless a glance at his plates will show you a new way of conquering old prejudices. Whistler it was who railed at large etchings. He was not far wrong. In the hands of the majority of etchers a large plate is an abomination, diffused in interest, coarse of line; but Brangwyn is not to be considered among this majority. He is a big fellow in everything. Besides, Whistler was using the familiar argument, pro doma sua. The same may be said of Poe, who simply would not hear of a long poem (shades of Milton!) or of Chopin, who lost his way in the sonata form, though coming out in the gorgeous tropical land, the thither side o sonatas and other tonal animals.
Because Catullus and Sappho did not write epics that is no reason why Dante should not. It is the old story of the tailless fox. Brangwyn as well as Anders Zorn has been called a rough-and-ready artist. For exquisite tone and pattern we must go to Whistler and his school. Brangwyn is never exquisite, though he is often poetic, even epical. Look at that Bridge, Barnard Castle. It is noble in outline, lovely in atmosphere. Or at the Old Hammersmith – “swell,” as the artist slang goes. The Mine is in feeling and mass Rembrandtish; and as we have used the name of the great Dutchman we may as well admit that to him, despite a world of difference, Brangwyn owes much. He has the sense of mass. What could be more tangibly massive than the plate called Breaking Up of the Hannibal ? Here is a theme which Turner in The Fighting Téméraire made truly poetic, and Seymour Haden in his Agamemnon preserved more than a moiety of sentiment, not to mention the technical prowess displayed; but in the hulk of this ugly old vessel of Brangwyn’s there is no beauty. However, it is hugely impressive. His landscapes are not too seldom hell-scapes.
The Inn of the Parrot is quaint with its reversed lettering. The Road to Montreuil is warm in colour and finely handled. How many have realised the charm of the rear view of Santa Maria Salute? It is one of the most interesting of Brangwyn’s Venetian etchings. His vision of Saint Sophia, Constantinople, has the mystic quality we find in the Dutchman Bauer’s plates, A Church at Montreuil attracts the eye; London Bridge is positively dramatic; the Old Kew Bridge has delicacy; the Sawyers with their burly figures loom up monstrously; the Building of the New Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, recalls, as treated by the impressionistic brush of Brangwyn (for the needle seems transformed into a paint-loaded spike), one of H. G. Wells’s terrific socialistic structures of the year 2009. Remember that Brangwyn is primarily a painter, an impressionist. He sees largely. His dream of the visible world (and like Sorolla, it is never the world invisible with him) is one of patches and masses, of luminous shadows, of animated rhythms, of rich arabesques. He is sib to the Scotch. His father is said to have been a Scottish weaver who settled in. Bruges. Frank saw much of the world before settling in London. He was born at Bruges, 1867. The Golden Book of Art describes him as a one-time disciple of William Morris. He has manufactured glass, furniture, wallpaper, pottery. His curiosity is insatiable. He is a mural decorator who in a frenzy could cover miles of space if some kind civic corporation would but provide the walls. As the writer of the graceful preface to the Wunderlich catalogue has it: “He gets the character of his theme. His art is itself full of character.” Temperament, overflowing, passionate, and irresistible, is his keynote. In music he might have been a Fritz Delius, a Richard Strauss. He is an eclectic. He knows all schools, all methods. He is Spanish in his fierce relish of the open air, of the sights and we almost said sounds of many lands, but the Belgian strain, the touch of the mystic and morose, creeps into his work. We have caught it more in his oils than etchings. It is not singular, then, that his small etched plates do not hold the eye; they lack magnetic quality, It is the Titan, rude and raging, dashing ink over an acre of white paper, that rivets you. The stock attitudes and gestures he does not give you; and it is doubtful if he will have an audience soon in America, where the sleek is king and prettiness is exalted over power. Works by Sir Frank Brangwyn at Liss Fine ArtSir Frank William BrangwynBRUGES: The Brangwyn Museum