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The Story of the Brangwyn Mosaic

In 1909 a parishioner at St Aidan’s, Robert Hawthorne Kitson, offered £100 each year for ten years for his friend, the artist Frank Brangwyn, to design and decorate the eastern apse of the church. He was the nephew of Eva Swayne, the wife of the then vicar, he lived at Gledhow Hall and his brother was the Lord Mayor of Leeds in that year.

After a long period of consultation it was decided to depict in tempera the life of St Aidan on the back wall of the apse. It would be a continuous picture showing four events in St Aidan’s life. Brangwyn started painting the central portion in 1910 and continued, haphazardly for two years before publicly expressing a long-felt worry.  The atmosphere of Harehills was smoke-ridden and filthy. He wrote:

“It was a bright summer day in London, but when we got to Leeds, although the sun still shone, it was like seeing things through a moulded glass; no shadows were cast on the ground. I would never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. I suggested to Kitson that no painting could exist in such atmosphere, and that it would be well for him to have it done in mosaic. He agreed, but the price he kindly offered to give to the painting went towards paying for the mosaic, and I had to add lots more ‘oof’ out of my own pocket for the rest. Anyway it was better than wasting the work and money on what in a year would be like brown paper.”

The artist asked if he could start again using mosaics and marble. The vicar, the newly appointed William Mason, agreed particularly as Brangwyn was to pay part of the additional cost. The work moved to London. Brangwyn employed Sylvester Sparrow, an experienced glass painter as his superintendent and the firm of Henry Rust executed the mosaics by employing young women from the poorer areas of Battersea who were trained in the delicate art. Brangwyn’s full sized cartoons were reversed and the cut pieces of vitreous tesserae were stuck on face down. When a sheet was complete it was cut to a manageable size and taken to Leeds by rail. Here it was cemented to the wall, the paper was soaked off and the mosaic was cleaned. 

The work took longer than expected and was not finished until 1916. It was unveiled on Consecration Day, October 13th. The issue of payment continued to rumble on for another four years and letters between Brangwyn and the vicar, although no acrimonious were certainly not very friendly. On one occasion Sparrow intervened and wrote to Mr Mason saying “…pay up and look big!”

The mosaic is seen at its best on a bright winter day at around noon when the sun shines through the nave windows. Rodney Brangwyn, the artist’s great-nephew, wrote:

“When the sun shines and flecks it with warm beams of light its gorgeous texture is released. It burst into life; its forms become discernible, its figures shed their mystery and reveal on their faces expressions of hope and piety.”

The mosaic shows four periods in St Aidan’s life: feeding the poor, his arrival at Lindisfarne, preaching and on his deathbed. Mildred Gibb, who wrote a fine history of St Aidan’s in 1954, gave her own description:

“Especially notable is the fine treatment of the gracefully balanced tall trees arranged in ably poised groups over the entire panel surface, giving dignity and unity of purpose to the whole design. the setting has the beauty of the English countryside in springtime; rich green grass, decked with great bluebells, wild purple anemones, a spray of budding apple blossom gleaming white against the dark background, yellow and mauve tulips in the immediate foreground. To the left is a pug dog with studded collar; in the centre are white plumaged geese, and a final happy detail of the scene is conceived in the four new-born goslings, suggesting the eternal fruitfulness of nature.”

The chancel walls were also decorated but in more muted colours in keeping with the pious nature of the figures which mark the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel:

“Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavily laden and I will give you rest.”

A display of stars on the south wall appears to be simply that, but closer examination will show that the two furthest right spell out the letters F B and that the artist has signed his great work.

Among the many famous people who have viewed the mosaic are Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Most Revd George Carey when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Lord Denis Healey of Riddlesden and the late Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate.

In 2002 the mosaic was cleaned for the first time in more than 50 years.  Lots of detail was revealed that had previously escaped the notice of many parishioners.

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