British Empire Panel (11) India, Frank Brangwyn
by Abhimanyu Gowda
First Prize, Years 10 & 11
This essay was written for the 2018 Write on Art prize, winning first place in the Year 10 & 11 category.
Picture the scene. It’s a typical, wet February day in South Wales. You slip off the M4, and 5 miles down the road into Swansea. Out of the damp misery, you step into the chiselled Portland stone of Brangwyn Hall, and straight into 3,000 square feet of colour.
These are the British Empire Plates. Sixteen exquisite, oil-painted boards, each 6.09 by 3.96 m wide adorn the walls of Swansea’s Guildhall. They are incredible; the myriad of convoluted shapes haphazardly scattered across the canvasses should be unsettling. Yet there is an undeniable sense of serenity.
Let’s take a closer look at #11. Brangwyn uses a wide palette, with a range of brilliant indigoes and turquoises, creating a vibrant, exotic portrayal of India. He uses organic brushstrokes and smooth lines to create the pleasing shapes of natural forms, such as the bird in the top right, and the plants which pervade the piece. The painting is stunning. The bold use of colour, the busy yet harmonious composition and the graduated tones all make it an artistic marvel.
But there is more to the story than meets the eye. In 1926, Lord Iveagh commissioned Brangwyn to paint for the Royal Gallery at the House of Lords, to commemorate those peers who had been killed in World War I. What Brangwyn painted was two large war paintings, which included images of troops advancing into battle.
The Lords were unnerved; they found them disturbing and refused. Instead, they asked him to produce a piece celebrating the splendour of the British Empire. Despite the censorship, Brangwyn spent five years of his life painting the British Empire Plates.
Yet again, he was rejected. The Lords declined them, claiming they were "too colourful and lively” for the proposed location. The rejections affected Brangwyn; he sunk into depression and went into recluse until his death in 1956.
I have a deep affinity for the paintings. Being a British Indian, the British Empire and its effect on the country of my heritage is important to me. I feel a connection with the breathtaking display of culture - the culture that I have witnessed firsthand on my travels to India. The melancholy subtext which lies behind the façade of pomp and glamour is, sadly, another thing which relates to the pain brought by the British Empire.
And it is through art that I have connected with this part of my heritage.
Abhimanyu Gowda is a student at King Edward VI School, Stratford-Upon-Avon and the 2018 winner of the Write On Art Essay Prize (Years 10 and 11 category). He writes on a plethora of topics ranging from art, history and culture to biochemistry and technology (see his Quora link for more). The essay on Brangwyn's British Empire Plates is the entry which won him the inaugural Write on Art award. In his spare time, he enjoys oil painting and cricket and one day aspires to be somewhat of a polymath.