Bramley was a leading member of the Newlyn School of painters, and this painting made his reputation when it was shown at the 1888 Royal Academy exhibition. It was immediately bought for the nation and has been on almost continuous view at the Tate Gallery since its opening in 1897.
The title, and to some extent the subject, came from a description of a beach with fishing boats in John Ruskin's The Harbours of England: 'Human effort and sorrow going on perpetually from age to age; waves rolling for ever; and still, at the helm of every lonely boat, through starless night and hopeless dawn, His hand, who spreads the fisher's net over the dust of the Sidonian palaces, and gave unto the fisher's hand the keys of the kingdom of heaven.'
The print after Raphael's cartoon of 'Christ giving the Keys to St Peter' represented on the wall on the right has evidently been placed there deliberately to bear out the text.
However, the subject can also be related to Charles Kingsley's famous and morbid poem of 1851, The Three Fishers, which describes the overnight vigil of three fishermen's wives whose husbands are at sea, concluding: 'Three corpses lay out on the shining sands / In the morning gleam as the tide went down / And the women are weeping and wringing their hands ... / For men must work and women must weep ...'
The wife and mother of the overdue fisherman have waited a day and a night and have now given up hope. The dying flame of the candle on the window ledge symbolises his death somewhere out in the stormy sea that is seen beyond it. An open Bible lies in front of the two women. As critics noted at the time, the picture is beautifully painted, particularly in its effects of light and low key colour, and in this respect it is one of the finest examples of Newlyn School painting.
A completely contrasting view of the life of the sea was provided by Stanhope Forbes in his equally famous painting 'The Health of the Bride' of 1889. It depicts the wedding feast of a young sailor and his bride in a local inn and like 'A Hopeless Dawn' was also praised both for its social observation and for its painterly qualities, particularly Forbes's ingenious lighting of the scene from two sources, one out of the picture on the right.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.91