Sir Frank Brangwyn has strong associations with Campion Hall, to which he was a generous donor: the Stations of the Cross in the Chapel are both his work and his gift, and he also gave the hall the copy of the Bruges Madonna which stands at the foot of the main stairs. Brangwyn was both versatile and prolific, as painter, muralist, printmaker, and occasionally, illustrator. In 1931, he agreed to make a suite of etchings for a book called L'Ombre de la Croix, to be published in a limited edition by Éditions Lapina in Paris.
Campion Hall has recently acquired a particularly fine copy of this book, bought for it by the Friends of the National Libraries. L’Ombre de la Croix was first published in 1917, and was written by the brothers Jérôme and Jean Tharaud. Its principal author, Jérôme Tharaud, was a French man of letters, a member of the Académie Française, and a versatile writer, who sometimes collaborated with his brother. His published oeuvre includes a variety of travel writing and belles-lettres on Jewish and Arabic life and history. The subject of L’Ombre de la Croix was the lives of poor and marginalised European Jews in the early years of the twentieth century; and given the tragic subsequent history of European Jewry, the work now has considerable value as a witness. It was initially issued in a modest format, and proved extremely popular. Due to its success, two different publishers conceived the idea of issuing an illustrated edition more or less simultaneously: Éditions Mornay commissioned coloured lithographs from a Jewish-Ukrainian painter and illustrator, Adolphe Féder, for an edition which came out in 1932, while Éditions Lapina, who were known for producing fine illustrated books, turned to Frank Brangwyn.
Brangwyn, a Belgian-English Catholic, who had no particular connections with central Europe, was a less obvious choice. He was a prolific and effective engraver and lithographer, who often tackled religious themes, but most of his illustration work was published in England. A series of six lithographs called ‘Ruins of War’ which was commissioned by The Canadian War Memorial Fund may have attracted attention in France, since the images are a shocking memorial of the destruction wrought on French cities during the First World War. Other work which may have attracted the publisher’s notice is the illustrations which he made for two books by the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren, published in Paris by Helleu in 1919 and 1927 respectively.
The 73 etchings he made for L’Ombre de la Croix appear to depict the town of Belz, which in the interwar period, was part of Poland. Jews had had equal rights and duties in Belz since 1665, and by 1919, about half the population was Jewish. In the nineteenth century, it became the home of an important Hasidic dynasty, and in consequence, a major centre for Torah study. Brangwyn is not known to have visited Poland: Dr Libby Horner’s research towards her forthcoming Brangwyn catalogue raisonée has found that a large proportion of the etchings seem to have been based on photographs.
The etchings are works of considerable power by an artist of great directness and sincerity, and take a variety of approaches to their subjects. Some are nervous, graphic scribbles, such as an image of a violinist, or a group of men in a street, two of them intensely engaged in conversation, while others are worked in some detail, such as his rendition of a synagogue interior. He is attentive to the individual qualities of his subjects; their bodies bent by poverty, their cheap, poorly fitting clothes; men (they are mostly men, since the engravings are scenes of public life) of varying status and temperament; eager, defeated, contemplative, suspicious. Images of Jews reading the Torah show faces of rapt, intense concentration, reflecting the particular character of the Belz Jewish community, which supported a programme of intense Torah study.
Despite their origin in photographs, the engravings are clearly the result of profound thought and feeling. Between 1930 and 1934, Brangwyn created a set of lithographic Stations of the Cross (a set of which are in the Chapel at Campion Hall). From the end of the First World War, he had made dozens, if not hundreds, of preliminary drawings relating to this project, which had originated with plans for the regeneration of Arras Cathedral. His work for L’Ombre de la Croixwas therefore influenced by the work he was simultaneously doing on this parallel project, which is also populated by dozens of Jewish figures, responding to, and interacting with, the central drama of Christ’s progress towards the Crucifixion. In consequence, his engravings are informed not only by the photographs he used as his starting point, but also by work into which he had been putting some of his best efforts for more than a decade.
- Jane Stevenson