C.L. Brook, fl. late 19th-early 20th century

We know very little about this artist. Despite a search in all the obvious places, we have not discovered more. He was, obviously, a gifted painter. This is demonstrated in the picture in our collection, and also in a late 19th century watercolour - a vivid marine painting, which went through the auctions in 2012. The evidence is that Brook shared the preoccupations of many artists at the turn of the 19th- 20th centuries. He studied the expressive power of colour and mark; he searched for an emotional depth in his work; and he enjoyed painting en plein air.

The oil which we have on sale, however, throws up some surprisingly demanding questions. The picture is quite small, oil on prepared board[1]. The quality of the little painting is impressive. But what strikes us most, of course, is its familiarity: it is a copy of Frank Bramley’s A Hopeless Dawn.

Bramley's dramatic and melancholy picture was painted when the artist was established as a member of the Newlyn School, which he had joined in c.1884, after having lived and worked in Venice for a couple of years. One of the distinctive features of Bramley’s work is that - unlike most of his Newlyn colleagues - he often focused on an interior. This not only lent his paintings a degree of individuality, it also allowed him to explore the contrasts and inter-relationships between internal and external light, and to demonstrate his mastery over rendering these tricky effects.

Yet there is more to it than simple, technical mastery. Bramley's picture is large and striking. It plainly tells of the intense desperation of the family left behind, as a loved one is lost to the sea, which is still raging, outside the window. This is not, however, just a story of misery; rather, it is a model of ultimate comfort. The title of the picture is taken from John Ruskin, whose conviction was that Christ is at the helm of every boat and at the heart of every disaster. Hence, the emotional depth of the picture is subtle and profound. It is conveyed not only in the imagery, but also in the range of low, harmonious, tones which cast their warm, dense - comforting - shadow over the scene. The sharp white of the angry sea outside and of the screwed-up scraps of paper thrown to the floor challenge the harmony - but are themselves quietened by the soft whites and pale blue-greys of the freshly-ironed cloth on the altar-like table, the pages of the Bible open on the window seat and the young woman's skirt, spread over the floor, as she kneels at the older woman's lap.

Bramley’s A Hopeless Dawn was much admired and purchased for the nation by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest, in 1888[2]. It proved enormously popular and was - indeed, still is - widely reproduced. It is a painting with more than one layer of significance. It is not surprising, therefore, that Bramley’s picture went on to be a model for other, later artists.

In fact, we have found several direct copies of this work by painters known and unknown. In 1898, ‘Av Sadler Malcolm’ and, in 1912, ‘Harvey’ copied the Bramley picture, both on a smaller scale than the original. Both these copies have appeared at auction in recent years; the former called, Light and Shade and the latter simply, Cottage Scene[3]. There is also a watercolour by the well-known Robert Jobling, recently on sale as, Lost at Sea[4]. Jobling was an artist who worked at Cullercoats and Staithes, on the fierce, north-east coast; yet, here he is, copying a Bramley painting executed in Newlyn. Surely the artist did not consider Staithes and Newlyn interchangeable?

There are several interesting debates entwined in these pictures. First of all, Bramley’s painting had obviously carved out a powerful place in the imagination of young artists. We know, of course, that academic training entailed copying from plaster casts and drawing and painting after old masters. We can accept, therefore, that young artists – for perhaps twenty years after Bramley’s picture had been acquired for the nation – either turned to this work themselves or were directed to it, by tutors who treated it as a model for the technical exploration of the difficult effects of ‘light and shade’.

But, once more, it is not straightforward. Robert Jobling was already 47 years old and a well-established artist - with a backlist of successful exhibits at the RA and the RBA - when Bramley painted, A Hopeless Dawn. So, although it is not clear what date Jobling painted his watercolour version, it was definitely not when he was a struggling student. There was something more significant – more iconic – about Bramley’s work which compelled these (and, surely, other) copies.

Briefly, perhaps, we should consider the ‘story’ of Englishness[5] being constructed during these pre-WWI years. This was a time when boastful confidence about imperial power was laced with unease bred by religious, moral and political doubt about such power relationships. It was when victory in military and political campaigns in Africa, China and India was balanced by declining industrial and scientific success at home. It was a time when social stability was shifting: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, in 1895 shocked his readers with its undermining of conventional views on religion, class and marriage; H.G. Wells’s disturbing War of the Worlds was published in 1898, followed by his scandalous Ann Veronica, in 1909; Jack London’s People of the Abyss was published in 1903 (the American’s account of the extreme poverty he encountered when visiting the East End of London). These, and many other, signs of fundamental change were unsettling.

It was within this context that the artists under discussion turned to painting out of doors in all weathers, or indoors, amid ‘primitive’ darkness, depicting rural communities in places which were - geographically, socially and culturally - marginalised, on the edge, isolated, the archetype of the ‘other’. Hence, perhaps, Staithes and Newlyn were, to some degree, interchangeable.

What is the significance of such practices? Certainly, many of the artists were influenced by the technical and material qualities of the work of painters such as the French ‘Realist’, Jules Bastien-Lepage. But, what we see in paintings by Bramley, Jobling, Walter Langley, Edwin Harris, Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes etc., is not actually ‘realism’ at all – or, at least, not actually ‘real’. The communities the artists lived amongst and painted were chosen precisely because they represented an unknown. The people could, therefore, be cast as timelessly solid, reliable, beautiful, accepting, religious, hard-working, proud. In other words, these fisherfolk embodied the best of an unchanging ‘Englishness’. What we have are epitomes of values to which many better-educated and metropolitan artists and patrons attached themselves for security. These provincial communities were thus presented, on the walls of the Royal Academy and other exhibiting bodies, as images of England’s stalwart defenders against change: the salt of the earth - bred of the sea.

Bramley’s A Hopeless Dawn, did, after all, carry a heavy burden of hope; as did the later versions. Our artist - C.L. Brook, who executed this study (probably) in 1911 - has produced a really interesting picture, full of delicious passages of paint and a serious and complex story.

Just three years after this picture was made, there was no further opportunity to resist fundamental and unsettling change. The cataclysmic onslaught of War threw everything in the air and the pieces settled back, where they would, cohering only gradually in a very different image of Englishness.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] The picture post-dates 1882, at which date, Winsor and Newton had established their premises at 38 Rathbone Place (see verso of picture). The date on the picture is probably 1911.

[2] Frank Holl’s 1871 painting, No Tidings from the Sea, and Walter Langley’s But Men Must Work and Women Must Weep, 1882 – the former painted in Cullercoats and the latter in Newlyn – are predecessors of A Hopeless Dawn.

[3] Both of these pictures sold for over £1,600.

[4] At auction for £600-£800.

[5] We do mean ’Englishness’ here. There were certainly Scottish artists working in villages and coastal communities, cut off from the metropolis - the ‘Glasgow Boys’ being the obvious examples - but their representation of these people and places seems to be less troubled by fear of social and industrial change.