William Curtis Brangwyn, architect and father of artist Sir Frank Brangwyn

I was looking for something on the Friends of Cathays Cemetery website the other day when my eye was caught by the fact the William Curtis Brangwyn is buried in Plot R2486.  True, I’d never heard of him, but the name of his son, Frank Brangwyn, rang a bell. The Brangwyn Hall in Swansea is named after him, somewhere I walked past on a daily basis many years ago to and fro from college and even went into a few times; to see Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, Chris Bonington deliver and excellent lecture, and to receive a degree certificate wearing a funny hat.  Anyway, I digress, a common ploy for someone trying to write something that know nothing about – not my fault – I was told to do it as an exam technique.

I paid a visit Plot R2486 at Cathays Cemetery.  The headstone was covered in ivy and in the shadow of an holly tree.  Gently removing some of the ivy revealed an unusual headstone design on which William’s middle name Curtis is split between two lines without even a hyphen.  That’s architects for you!  My interest was now piqued and I was asking myself why has this grave been seemingly forgotten.  I began to research him and another interesting life story slowly revealed itself.  

The Genealogy Bit

Many articles written about Frank Brangwyn state his parents were Welsh.  Well, his mother Eleanor was for certain but try as I might I haven’t found any Welsh connections with William Curtis Brangwyn – other than he is buried in our beautiful city and his surname sounds like it should be of Welsh origin.  True, his family history isn’t straightforward, particularly as the spelling of Brangwyn has changed over time from Brangwin to Brangwyn.  If there are any family historians out there keen to take a look then I’d be glad of a helping hand.

Census returns consistently give William Curtis Brangwyn’s  birthplace as Crendon, Buckinghamshire.  It seems he was born on 10 Aug 1837 to William Brangwin, a cattle dealer and Mary Curtis and baptised on 21 Nov 1837 in Long Crendon.  In 1851 he was a scholar living with his uncle Thomas Brangwin in Long Crendon.  In 1861, he is 23 and living in Scarborough, Yorkshire working as a trainee architect and by now his surname has morphed to Brangwyn. The same year he publishes a booklet entitled ‘Gothic Memorials: Being Sundry Sketches for Headstones, Monuments and Crosses’ (available for free download on Google Play).

It appears his career was about to take off – he became an ecclesiastical architect and designing not only the churches themselves but everything inside them, especially the tapestries.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this, after all he came from Long Crendon, which used to be the centre for the England steel needle-making industry in the mid 16th-century.

Eleanor Brangwyn nee Griffiths

His wife Eleanor was born in Llanstephan, Radnorshire and grew up in the village of Glasbury, daughter of James Griffiths, a house servant and Ann Griffiths.  In 1861 at the age of 19 she was working as a housemaid for Rev Walter Powell Jones, the rector Llyswen.

Eleanor married William Curtis Brangwyn on 24 Jun 1865 at the Sardinian Roman Catholic chapel in St Giles, London.  It puzzled me for a while how Eleanor, a country girl from deepest Radnorshire, ended up marrying William Curtis Brangwyn in London.  I have a theory about that.  I discovered that her employer Rev Walter Powell Jones had moved from LLyswen to London and in the 1871 census we find him working as a clergyman in Marylebone.  I think therefore that Eleanor probably went with the family to be their housemaid in London.  Perhaps, one day, a budding young ecclesiastical architect William Brangwyn knocked on the door hoping to entice Rev Walter Powell Jones into buying some of his latest tapestry designs.  Eleanor answers the door. “Hello Mr Brangwyn, unfortunately Rev Jones is busy at the moment but perhaps you’d like to come in for a glass of communion wine?” “That would be nice” says young Mr Brangwyn “Perhaps you’d like to see my etchings?”.  And the rest as they say is history. 

Their first child, Edith, was born in Jun 1864, prior to them getting married.  After their marriage they moved to Bruges, Belgium so that William can further his career as an ecclesiastical architect.  Eleanor has three more children whilst they are in Bruges including Frank Brangwyn in 1867 who was actually baptised Guilliaume Francois Brangwyn.

Life in Bruges

William’s time in Bruges appears to have been pretty successful.  He won a prize in 1865 for the best designed parish church awarded by the Belgium Guild of St Thomas and St Luke. Whilst in Bruges he was appointed to help carry out the decoration of the Holy Blood Chapel (Bruges) in neo-Gothic style.  He also decorated the now disappeared chapel of the Saint Juliaangesticht (1870) in the Boeveriestraat.  In 1868 he also designed the neo-gothic extension of the Saint Vedastus church in Zerkegem.

Saint Vedastus church in Zerkegem

 A religious banner designed by William Brangwyn was exhibited in Paris at the Universal Exhibition of 1867, where it received the prize offered for embroidery by the Roman Catholic Congress of Malines.  The embroidery is now at the Victoria and Albert museum in London – though not necessarily on display.

The work of William Curtis Brangwyn at the V&A Museum

He was certainly up there with the top embroiderers.  The book ‘English Church Embroidery 1833 to 1953 – The Watts Book of Embroidery’ describes his work alongside other renowned artists of the time such as Pugin and Bodley.  

When you are working in the field of ecclesiastical embroidery I guess the top endorsement you can get is from an Archbishop and this is what William got in 1868.  The newspaper carried an advertisement quoting a letter from Henry Manning, Archbishop of Westminster. ‘I have much pleasure in testifying to the beauty and excellence of your Ecclesiastical Embroidery of which this Diocese processes several rich specimens.  I feel it only needs to be seen to be appreciated. ……’

Return to England

The family returned to London in the 1870s with offices at 6 John Street, Adelphi.  It is written that after returning to England, Brangwyn went to work in the studio of architect Sir Horace Jones (the man credited with designing Tower Bridge).

Whilst in Bruges it seems William Brangwyn had an emphasis on embroidery but may be that fell away when he returned to England. In 1872 William Curtis Brangwyn of Baker Street, ecclesiastical embroiderer, went into liquidation.  Having said that, as late as 1892 he designed the alter hangings used at the Royal Wedding of Princess Marie of Edinburgh and Prince Ferdinand of Romania.    

Although it is possible to find building designs by William Brangwyn, finding actual completed structures is more difficult.  He did design a school and church in Langsett, South Yorkshire but I’m afraid you are out of luck if you wanted to visit nice though the village looks.  It was demolished in 1988.

Langsett School, Yorkshire

There are pictures of his competition entries for building designs including the Middle Class Schools for the Grocer’s Company in Hackney (1874) and the Board of Works Offices In Greenwich (1875). The Cardiff Times of 1874 describes a competition submission for a school design by W C Brangwyn and L A Withall (London) which included twin turrets.  It is not known if they won the tender.

Relocating to Wales

William moved to Cardiff where he became a draughtsman employed by the renowned architect Col. Bruce Vaughan.  There seems to be little documented information on William Brangwyn’s time in Cardiff.  He isn’t accredited with any of Bruce Vaughan’s pieces directly but may well have leant a hand on one of his best pieces, St James the Great church on Newport Road.  It has been written that  ‘The appealing artistry here, for example in the depiction of two angels swinging censors over the porch entrance, would have owed something to his collaboration in these years with the Welsh designer William Brangwyn’.   The church is currently being converted into flats but the angels above the door can still be seen from the road.

The angels above the doorway on St James the Great church, Newport Road, Cardiff

In  the 1901 census we find William Brangwyn, architect, aged 61, living as a boarder at 121 Crwys Road.  He died at 36 Salisbury Road on 19 Nov 1907 of intestinal obstruction and cardiac failure.  The informant was Catherine Williams, present at death. The age on his death certificate is given as 72 though he was probably more accurately 70.   The newspaper was advertising rooms for rent at 36 Salisbury Road earlier that year.  I am wondering if William Brangwyn was boarding in the house, Catherine Williams was the landlady and whether he was somehow estranged from his family.  His death was only reported in the newspaper in Feb 1908 where he was described as an authority in Gothic architecture.    Eleanor was still alive in 1901 but I haven’t found her anywhere on a census.  She was living with her son Frank in the 1911 census and she passed away in 1918 in Hertfordshire.

The man behind the ecclesiastical architecture

An interesting insight into the life of William Curtis Brangwyn comes from the book Frank Brangwyn and his works – by Walter Shaw-Sparrow.  It was written in 1911, not long after the death of William Curtis Brangwyn and reads as it had good access to family information.  In fact it refers to William Curtis Branwyn being known as Curtis Brangwyn and newspapers after this date also called him Curtis Brangwyn.  It describes his life as one of ups and downs and of a man who preferred undertaking art in various forms rather than the business of trying to sell it.  Here are some extracts:

…. But (Frank) Brangwyn is not drawn to Wales by any strong feeling of affection, although his art owes so much to his mother’s race and country, and although his father, Mr. Curtis Brangwyn, spoke always of Wales with great enthusiasm, and himself claimed some descent from that country.

Mr. Curtis Brangwyn was a very remarkable man, and his name has been coupled with that of Pugin, for he greatly loved Gothic and helped to reawaken the public taste for mediaeval arts and crafts. His temperament was Anglo-Welsh ; and when he chose architecture as his profession, he did not know that building methods had lost their old-time freedom, and that they needed long office hours and stern business habits. Painting would have suited him much better; and although he gained the confidence and admiration of distinguished architects like G. E. Street and Sir Horace Jones, Mr. Curtis Brangwyn was thwarted all his life by his inability to be at the same moment an artist and a man of business. Many writers on architecture have deplored the effects of a mercantile routine on men of imagination. Fergusson went so far as to say that modern architects in practice “could never afford to give many hours to the artistic elaboration of their designs,” and that they generally succeeded ‘more from their business-like habits than their artistic powers.” Fergusson was right, and the career of Mr. Curtis Brangwyn was a case in point.

The racehorse could not be broken to the plough; that is to say, the artist could not adapt himself to relentless methods of routine in a city office, so he worked in the employ of other men rather than bear the many responsibilities that Fergusson hated and condemned.

Mr. Curtis Brangwyn married early, and his education in architecture having brought him in touch with the energetic school of thought known as the Gothic Revival, he kept his home for some time by doing for church uses such work as many could afford to buy. Then, believing that life on the Continent would be less expensive than it was in London, he decided to make his home in Belgium, at Bruges; here he set up his quarters at No. 24 in the Rue du Vieux Bourg, and then opened workrooms for the reproduction of old embroideries for altar-cloths and vestments. At Bruges his son Frank was born, May the 12th, 1867. Mrs. Brangwyn was then twenty-three, and her husband twenty-seven. Frank Brangwyn was their third child. He had two sisters for playmates, and Bruges -she has been called the Dead City – was a quiet nursery.

One thinks of Bruges as a fitting birthplace for a Fernand Khnopff or a Maeterlinck; but Brangwyn and Bruges?

And I find, too, that Brangwyn has very little to tell about his birthplace, though he remained there for eight years. Some recollections are clear-cut, but they have nothing to do with boyish mischief in the town. They are all connected with art. He remembers many a visit to his father’s workrooms, where exquisite needlework lay on tables, shimmering with bright colours ; and one day in his father’s garden he found by chance a bundle of photographic negatives, half broken, and looking up from them he saw, against a background of houses and blue sky, a tree covered with red blossoms, such as the Japanese love in their lightly touched prints.  Colour was to him what music was to the boy Mozart. He has related that the home garden in old Bruges was an enchanted place to him, where great beasts lurked in the shadows, where trees were giants and ogres, and flowers little lords and ladies.

More important still, I think, is another recollection. There was a portfolio of prints at home, and the boy was allowed to play with it. A good many artists were represented, but only one really delighted him ; it was Charles Degroux, a painter of the Belgian poor, who died in 1870. ………..

 Yet Brangwyn at the age of eight not only enjoyed Degroux, but struggled to copy from engravings after Degroux’s pictures. The boy was father to the man. His present work (to a great extent) was foretold by his native tastes in childhood. ………

At the beginning of 1875 Mr. Curtis Brangwyn left Bruges for England. “I remember dimly our embarkation, though it might have resulted in the days of my youth being ended once for all, for – at least, so I am told I was discovered crawling along one of the sponsons of the steamer. From this highly perilous position I was rescued in the nick of time, and – here recollection becomes more vivid – soundly spanked and put to bed. In England I went first of all to a dame’s school, and then to a big middle-class school, the name of which has totally escaped me. For reasons into which I need not enter, but which have nothing to do with myself, my schooldays came to an abrupt end, and I made myself useful in my father’s office.”

When Mr. Curtis Brangwyn arrived in London he took an office at No. 6 John Street, Adelphi, and sent two architectural designs to the Royal Academy, “ Hastings Town Hall,” and “Schools of the Grocers’ Company, Hackney.” Next year, 1876, he exhibited again, ‘‘ Design for Offices of the Board of Works at Greenwich,” and also, in 1879, “ Yarmouth Town Hall,” and a fine sketch in water-colour of a pulpit at Canford Church. The R.A. catalogues give me no other information, but Mr. Curtis Brangwyn is permanently represented at the Victoria and Albert Museum by a beautiful piece of embroidery – a banner carried out from his designs in his own establishment. After a life of hard work, chequered with ups and downs, he died in December 1907.

Offspring

William Curtis and Eleanor Brangwyn had six children.  Edith (b.1864) born in England, Eleanor (b.1866), Frank (b.1867) and Philip (b.1870) born in Bruges and then Cuthbert (b. 1876) and Lawrence (b. 1879) born back in England. 

Frank Brangwyn was an artistic jack-of-all-trades and difficult to categorise. As well as paintings and drawings, he produced designs for stained glass, furniture, ceramics, table glassware, buildings and interiors, was a lithographer and woodcutter and was a book illustrator.  The life of Sir Frank Brangwyn has been well recorded.  There is a synopsis on Dictionary of Welsh Biography and a nice piece by Phil Carradice.   If you prefer to view a biography on him rather than read something then I would recommend this Goldmark video.  He was initially taught by his father, then spotted by Mackmurdo and also no doubt benefited from his short time working for William Morris. The history of the British Empire Panels at Brangwyn Hall is nicely covered by Andrew Green.

One of the British Empire Panels at Brangwyn Hall, Swansea

Frank Brangwyn is reputed to have produced over 10,000 works of art. You would have thought among  those there would have been some of his Mum and Dad, but unfortunately I haven’t come across any as yet.  

Two of the other sons also benefited from being taught by their father William Curtis Brangwyn.  Cuthbert Patrick Joseph Brangwyn (1875-1911) went to America and became an designer and interior decorator for McCreery & Company’s Pittsburgh branch.  Philip Brangwyn also became an interior decorator in Canada but I haven’t been able to find any further information about him or for that matter the other siblings.

The work of Cuthbert Brangwyn

As part of my research into this article I did an internet search on “Brangwyn” and “Architecture” and came across Caitlin Brangwyn who is studying architecture at Liverpool School of Architecture, following in the family footsteps and uses embroidery in her work.  Here’s wishing Caitlin all the best in her future career.

So next time you are taking a walk around the peaceful Cathays Cemetery, take a careful look under the ivy.  You’d be surprised what story you may unearth.

The grave of William Curtis Brangwyn at Cathays Cemetery, Cardiff