Life among the Ruins, Messina

Life among the Ruins, Messina by Sir Frank Brangwyn RA RWS PRBA HRSA, 1867-1956. 1910. Watercolor. Source: Sparrow, Prints and Drawings by Frank Brangwyn, facing 176.

Commentary by Walter Shaw Sparrow

He has done one set of water-colour impressions, numbering about fifty, that may be described, without extravagance, as tragic and epical. In 1908, after the earthquake, Brangwyn went to Messina, as we have learnt from a few of his etchings, and these fifty watercolours are the history of his experiences. Two Messina sketches were seen as colour-plates in my earlier book; and the whole series proved, with mingled glow and gloom, pathos and satire, grandeur and meanness, that men of a day among the ruins were often about as foolish as moths are at night when they see naked flames. Now and then gamblers and thieves were busy, and some other fools made themselves into beasts with drink and revel. Contrasts between prayer and levity jostled one another, as if comic songs at a deathbed would enforce attention, like deep harmony. Below the Duomo, itself partly a ruin, and awed as by Dante, little busy men would pray sometimes, and at other times would care not a jot, seemingly, that Nature had ruled again over human pride, destroying with terrible speed what men had put up with slow pains. Human vice remained, and gregarious custom, with half-hours of emotional prayer, and some other ordinary good behaviour. Thus, in Brangwyn's historic water-colours, sketched at a white heat among sinister ruins, Messina in one aspect seems to be what Chaucer writes about drunkenness — a horrible sepulture of man's reason; more fate-haunted, of course, since earthquake has made an epic of desolation where many a year of good material work done by man is injured, or broken, or smashed. Yet we cannot say that human folly seems to have a longer tenure of life than human thought and handicraft, for almost all we know about many a people and many a tongue is learnt from what seems to be the first and most fragile of man's inventions, pottery, fictile art, like those clay vases wherein primitive tribes buried their enshrined dead. But yet it is imperative that painters, like other historians, should gather from disaster all that Brangwyn learnt both of nature and of human nature amid the wreckage, grand and mean, at Messina. [Prints and Drawings of Brangwyn, 239-40]

Formatting and text by George P. Landow. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit Internet Archive and the Ontario College of Art and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Sparrow, Walter Shaw. Frank Brangwyn and His Work. New York: Dana Estes, 1911. Internet Archive version of a copy in the Ontario College of Art. Web. 28 December 2012.

Sparrow, Walter Shaw. Prints and Drawings of Frank Brangwyn with Some Other Phases of His Art. London: John Lane, 1919. Internet Archive version of a copy in the Ontario College of Art. Web. 28 December 2012.

Last modified 28 December 2012