In 1888 Frank Bramley took the Royal Academy by storm with his sombre depiction of A Hopeless Dawn (1888, Tate Britain). The picture was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the National Gallery of British Art, and with it, the Newlyn artists' colony in Cornwall became the centre of the London art world's attention. This dramatic scene set in a fisherman's cottage exemplified a new method of painting. Bramley was the proponent of a 'square brush' Naturalism more readily associated with European ateliers than English art schools. British painting was suddenly lifted out of its post-Pre-Raphaelite doldrums and, sharing the honours with Stanhope Forbes, Bramley was avant-garde. Although he would later return to outdoor scenes on the Newlyn quayside, the cottage interior represented in his Chantrey picture became a kind of signature subject, adopted by Edwin Harris, Norman Garstin, Walter Langley and other Newlyn artists. However none was so subtle in his observation of light and shade as Bramley.
During the next ten years, in paintings such as By the Light of the Fire, 1894 (private collection), Bramley continued to address what Claude Phillips described as 'his favourite motif and his favourite illumination' ('The Royal Academy', The Academy, 26 May 1894, p. 44). Now an Academy Associate, the artist sought new subjects for this familiar setting and in 1896 depicted 'While there is Life there is Hope', (fig. 1, 1896, Royal Academy Pictures, p. 104) described by Charles Hiatt as 'a group of rustics watch[ing] the progress of a sick animal with intense interest' ('Mr Frank Bramley ARA and his Work', The Magazine of Art, 1903, p. 58). For The Art Journal, the seeming triviality of the subject was more than compensated by 'sound painting' and an 'earnest attention to an arrangement of colours and tones' ('The Royal Academy, 1896', The Art Journal, 1896, p. 178).
The present picture, Fireside Tales, isolates the two left hand figures from this composition. While the circumstances surrounding the dismemberment remain obscure, the fact that the painting has been re-signed by the artist may indicate that he was dissatisfied with the Academy picture. (Speculation on this point tends to be confirmed by the apparent lack of retouching at the time when the present section was removed). Far from being a fragment, the figures function as a perfectly contained composition, with the elderly woman passing on her wisdom to the attentive girl by her side. The bond between the two women is strong and their stoicism is reinforced by the stories that come from glowing embers. The careful management of colour and tone observed by The Art Journal critic equally applies in the present picture.
A phlegmatic character, Bramley was serious-minded. Although he captained the Newlyn cricket team, he never participated in Newlyn theatricals and his Tory sympathies seem to have placed him at odds with Stanhope Forbes, his rival for leadership of the Newlyn School. He tackled monumental themes that evoked immediate sentiment, yet it is often in smaller works where the strain of performance is reduced, that the splendid lucidity of his handling is seen at its best. This is the case with Fireside Tales, a picture that marks the close of his years in Cornwall.