The present sketch is the preliminary study for Frank Bramley’s masterpiece, A Hopeless Dawn, 1888 (Tate Britain).
Arguably the ground-breaking picture which firmly established the Newlyn School, A Hopeless Dawn was the only painting by one of its members to be purchased for the National Collection of British Art, under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest. Even before its departure for the Royal Academy in that year, Bramley was fêted by Newlyn colleagues who realised that his success would pave the way to theirs. The Art Journal was typical in noting that here was ‘more intensity of feeling than perhaps any other picture from the school to which it belongs’. Its pre-eminence was confirmed when, with Lavery’s Bridge at Grez, 1883, Clausen’s Girl at the Gate, 1889, and La Thangue’s The Man with the Scythe, 1896, it began to appear in anthologies such as Gleeson White’s Master-Painters of Britain (1910).
As has been pointed out, Bramley drew upon rich visual sources for his drama. Back in 1870, Frank Holl’s No Tidings from the Sea had depicted a similarly distraught family in a work purchased by Queen Victoria. Thereafter, Holl and others tried to repeat the success and fishermen’s cottage interiors became relatively common in the smaller exhibitions of the 1880s. It was only in 1888 however, that the subject was re-charged with meaning, in the cold light that breaks over the sea, the guttering candle, the frugal meal and the anguished young fisherman’s wife of A Hopeless Dawn.
Apart from slight re-positioning of the figures, and the significant insertion of the open Bible, the present sketch and finished picture are remarkably similar. The room, derived from Bramley’s tiny studio on the corner of the ‘rue des Beaux Arts’ in Newlyn, is identical, and the effective placing of the figures, accentuating the space around them, concentrates the drama. The handling, that ‘square-brush naturalism’ of which the painter was a leading proponent, is much in evidence - such that Austin Chester’s summing up of the finished picture as, ‘stamped with sincerity … subtle in technical treatment, as drama in paint it could hardly be surpassed’, could equally apply to the sketch.