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FRANK BRAMLEY · S PRIMROSE DAY: A DISRAELI TRIBUTE AND ARTISTIC GAMBLE Betsy Cogger Rezelman St. Lawrence University Benjamin Disraeli's death on 19 April 1881 precipitated an annual public outpouring of expressions of grief, tribute and remembrance surpassing that of any previous Victorian Prime Minister. Though he and his premiership had been deeply controversial, public mourners crossed both party and class boundaries to participate in the local and national memorials on the anniversary of his death. Among those tributes was a painting entitled Primrose Day (1885) by Frank Bramley (1857-1915), a new member of the growing art colony at Newlyn, Cornwall.1 (Fig 1) By 1885 the anniversary, called Primrose Day, had become an occasion that few English people were unaware of, even if they chose not to sport a commemorative primrose. Thus, regardless of their stance on the inflammatory political issues of the day, Bramley could assume viewers would recognize the Disraeli associations in his work. For those inclined to make the effort, PrimroseDay offered rich possibilities for interpretation and reflection on Disraeli ' s goals and legacy. Other painters commemorated Primrose Day, but only Bramley ' s work is now on public view in a prominent London collection. However, it is not one of the Tate Gallery's more well-known works: it seems to lack the narrative, emotive and/or moral clout of many of its neighbors in the nineteenth-century galleries. The mention of Primrose Day no longer elicits responses; April 19 is an undistinguished date on our calendar, its historical implications forgotten with the passage of time. As a result, viewers are baffled by Bramley' s painting. Even if they recognize Primrose Day's ubiquitous Victorian traits—a pretty girl with flowers; a quiet, meditative pose; a rural setting—they are puzzled by its title and raison d'etre. Without a knowledge of the late nineteenth-century cultural context, viewers remain unaware ofthe diverse layers of meaning Primrose Day once offered to its audience. Victorian Review 17.1 (Summer 1991) 52Victorian Review Figure 1. Frank Bramley, Primrose Day, 1885. o/c. Tate Gallery, London Betsy Cogger Rezelman53 Another reason for its present neglect has to do with style. In 1885 Bramley ' s technique was considered new and foreign, a sure combination to provoke controversial attention. The Newlyners' use of tonal harmonies and visible square brushwork exemplified the stylistic changes taking place in English art as a result of the younger generation's continental training. Bramley and his fellow plein ovists—referred to as the "outsiders"—were considered the principle challengers to die Royal Academy · s hegemony in matters of style. However, when their works are compared to certain other contemporaries whose artistic goals were even less mainstream, the Newlyners ' relative conservatism stands out; James McNeill Whistler, Albert Moore, Walter Sickert and Philip Wilson Steer and others went considerably farther in consciously eliminating the traditional Victorian elements of narrative, sentiment and morality from their work, and focused instead on stylistic problems of composition and tone and color relationships. At the Tate, Primrose Day is not exhibited to its advantage beside a tame James Hook coastal genre scene but among the more avant garde nocturnes of Whistler and aesthetic figurai arrangements of Moore. Interestingly, the other Bramley painting owned by the Tate,A Hopeless Dawn (1888), is one of the gallery · s most popular works, if post card sales are any indication of public approbation. (Fig 2) (It possesses all the emotive qualities Whistler would have hated.) Those who have heard of Bramley probably know him as the painter of this work, which hangs in an adjacent room to Primrose Day. Bramley ' s reputation has rested on A Hopeless Dawn since 1888 when it was one of the highlights of that year 's Royal Academy exhibition. Before A Hopeless Dawn left Bramley's cottage studio in Newlyn, Bramley ' s artist colleagues correctly anticipated its favorable reception. It became the sole Newlyn work to be purchased by the Chantrey trustees for the nation. Unlike Primrose Day, A Hopeless Dawn speaks to later generations as well as its own by addressing timeless and universal feelings of loss, hope and love. Twentieth-century viewers, like their Victorian counterparts, are moved by...


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