Peter Brannan

Photo:The Monument (1968).

The Monument (1968).

Private Collection, courtesy estate of the artist.

The Art of Peter Brannan - An Archaeological dig

By Dr. Malcolm Moyes

The painter, Peter Brannan (1926-1994), was born in Cleethorpes, but eventually was adopted as a son of Newark: not before some stout resistance from the Town Council in February, 1959, however, when it rejected an opportunity proposed by the Museum Committee to purchase a painting of Slaughterhouse Lane, titled Snow scene, for £25.

Fortunately, the controversial painting has not been lost to Newark, as it was donated to the town in October 1989 by the artist and is now one of the two paintings by Peter Brannan held by the Newark and Sherwood Resource Centre.

Photo:East Coast Beach, 1982.

East Coast Beach, 1982.

Private Collection. Courtesy estate of the artist


At the time of the disappointing rejection of Snow scene, Peter Brannan was an Art Master at The Mount School in the town, and was later to become Head of Art at the Lilley and Stone High School and then at The Magnus School, before retiring in 1981. At the time, also, he had regularly exhibited paintings in Lincolnshire Artists’ Society Annual Exhibition and in 1951 at the prestigious Foyle’s Art Exhibition in London. In the following few years, Peter Brannan also had many One-Man Exhibitions at Charles Harding’s Trafford Gallery in Mayfair, enabling him to establish a metropolitan reputation beyond Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Clearly the painter of a picture valued by the most vociferous member of Newark Town Council at less than 3s 6d was a creative artist of some stature, whose talent was recognised and celebrated outside the short-sighted and crushing parsimony of the Council Chambers.


Cataloguing his Works

A definitive catalogue of the work of Peter Brannan does not exist and this has been my research project since July 2016, after I bought my first painting by him. Some of those works can be viewed in various public collections, most notably the Newark Town Council Museum and the Usher Gallery in Lincoln, and knowledge about them found in ephemeral exhibition catalogues and in brief notices scattered haphazardly around the internet. However, what at first glance looked like a straightforward project of collection, collation and synthesis, has proved to be anything but straightforward.

Photo:Street scene (1963).

Street scene (1963).

Private Collection, courtesy estate of the artist

The reasons for this are manifold, including my own naïve assumption that the knowledge was out there, just lying on the surface and waiting for me to pick it up: what started life as casual cultural beachcombing in the world of C20th English provincial art has turned into a full-scale archaeological dig.

To date, I have unearthed well over six hundred works by Peter Brannan, produced between 1948 and 1994, including some possible/probable duplicates. Part of the problem, I discovered, is that in the art world the titles of paintings are not always fixed, often shift, but for different reasons. The titles of paintings sometimes change because the world of art seems to have a number of different stakeholders involved in the process of giving a painting its title, who all seem to work on the basis of convenience or entitlement. So a painting may start life with one title, provided by the artist, for example, and by the time it has reached a new exhibition a couple of years down the line or an auction house, even more years down the line, it has been re-baptised with slight variants or, if it has lost the original ticket information from the verso of the canvas, given a totally new one.  The problem becomes even more vexatious when generic titles such as Still Life, Street scene and Interior are used by the artist for a number of distinct works over a period of time. Unless the paintings and their titles have been scrupulously documented as they travelled from studio to exhibition to homes and possibly to eventual re-sale, essential information is lost, until re-discovered by digging deep. I am guessing that this problem is not particular to the work of Peter Brannan, but it is one exacerbated by Brannan’s own sometimes diffident attitude to the titles of his own work, which he occasionally left in the hands of his picture framer to decide.

The issue of the identity of a painting is also sometimes reliant upon an apparently meaningless number found written on the back of the frame which could re-unite it with a catalogue or exhibition reference. Unfortunately, these numbers are rarely recorded in documents relating to provenance, and an opportunity to identify a painting and analyse it fully is lost. This lack of awareness of the potential significance of the apparently insignificant at best works against an increase in knowledge about a painting, at worst, it perpetuates error.


Can You Help?

If the above observations go some way to explaining why precise knowledge about paintings is often buried out of sight and difficult to recover, the status of a painting as a commercial object makes its own frustrating contribution to thwarting a comprehensive catalogue of an artist’s work. Commercial sensitivity usually prevents information about both seller and buyer entering the public domain: this I can understand, to some extent, but what I cannot comprehend is the refusal to supply at least an image of the picture or even worse, let you see the painting and its sale details on condition that you pay up front for the privilege, as with some internet sites. When knowledge has a price, research and greater understanding pay the price.

Photo:Cleethorpes Beach scene (1983)

Cleethorpes Beach scene (1983)

Private Collection, courtesy estate of the artist.

On the other hand, my on-going excavation of the artistic catalogue of Peter Brannan has been helped by the generosity of many people who knew him and by major collectors of his paintings and drawings who wanted to share their enthusiasm with me: to them, I am very grateful. I have also received the kind support of Peter Brannan’s family in bringing to light the artistic achievements of an outstanding English talent of the second half of the C20th. However, there is still much hard digging to be done to discover the whereabouts of many paintings which have not been seen for decades and which would contribute towards a full understanding and appreciation of a painter, once publically derided, but now much admired.

Can you help? 

I’m always on the lookout for more information and new paintings, so if you own a picture by Peter Brannan, I’d be very pleased to hear from you to include in my research. I can be contacted at the email address below.


Dr Malcolm Moyes


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