A Hopeless Dawn, by Frank Bramley, RA (1857-1915). Oil on canvas. Support: 1226 × 1676 mm; frame: 1595 × 2055 × 145 mm. Collection: Tate, presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest in 1888. Reference: N01627. Image kindly released under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence.

According to the gallery label of May 2007, the painting's title "comes from a passage by John Ruskin, which affirms that Christ is at the helm of every boat." Dr. Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, Davis Alumni Professor of Louisiana State University, has provided chapter and verse, writing (via Twitter) to say that the title comes specifically from Ruskin's "The Harbours of England" (Works 13.25). The implication is that although the bereft wife, whose husband has failed to return form the sea, is being comforted by her mother-in-law, there is a still greater source of comfort: "the open Bible, altar-like table and print on the wall hint at the consolations of religion."

Close-up of the figures at the right.

Many details in the painting heighten the effect: the seaweed hanging by the window, an old basic way of telling the weather; the lamp at the window, almost completely burnt out (outside the window, waves break against a rocky shore), the gate-leg table draped like an altar, complete with candle, now being blown by the draught; the simple meal with bread, ready for the fisherman who has failed to return — or suggesting bread for communion, together with jug and pitcher, which might also suggest religious ritual. The room is a poor one, with a loose board. But the two women in the shadows are the most moving, the elderly one with straggling hair and wrinkled hand, trying to comfort the younger one despite her own terrible loss, and the despairing young wife — now widow — whose beauty is not compromised by her crumpled skirts. They make a very touching tableau. Note that the younger one's hand droops towards the big old family bible on the window-seat, which makes a link between the two side sof the painting, with despair on the one side, and Christian consolation on the other. In talking of a later painting (Saved) Marion Spielmann wrote that it hardly "touches so true a note of dramatic, or, one might fairly say, of tragic power, as A Hopeless Dawn" (150). This is one of only two paintings by Bramley in the Tate. — Jacqueline Banerjee


M. H. S. (Marion Harry Spielmann). "Saved: Painted by Frank Bramley." The Magazine of Art. Vol. 13: 150. Google Books. Free Ebook.

Created 10 March 2021