The Stonebreaker

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The Stonebreaker

Title: The Stonebreaker
Date: 1857 or 1858
Artist: John Brett
Date of birth:
Nationality: British: English
Date of death:
Materials: Oil; Canvas
Information: This work is a tour-de-force of Pre-Raphaelite truth to nature. The boy is knapping flints for road making, a task often given to paupers. Despite this, the boy looks well nourished and the playful dog adds an air of sentimentality to the piece.

The figure, his clothing, the rocks, plants, sky and every detail of the distant Surrey landscape are captured with scientific accuracy. This reflects Brett's interest in the writings of the influential Victorian art critic John Ruskin.

The Stonebreaker depicts a young boy breaking flint stone at the roadside in bright sunlight. The view has been identified as looking over the Mole Valley towards Box Hill, Surrey. The milestone in the foreground of the painting indicates the distance from London (23 miles). There is a railway bridge and an embankment in the middle distance at the right, while left of the centre one looks down to the spire of St. Michael's Church. The painting seems to reflect Ruskin's ideal of truth to nature as well as Brett's interest in geology. Ruskin himself was also interested in geology and natural science.

The work of breaking stones was arduous and often given to the poor and destitute by local Parish boards. The stones were used to fill potholes in the parish maintained roads. The painting could be read as a critique of child labour in Victorian times. Pre-Raphaelite artists often commented in their work on family life, women's exploitation or the demoralisation of urban Victorian life. However the boy in the Stonebreaker does not appear to be destitute; his clothes are neat and clean while the dog playing with the boy's cap and the glorious sunshine alleviate the depressing sight of a child engaged in forced labour.

Colour and space are the predominant features of this well constructed landscape. The passage from foreground to middle ground and then to the far distance, almost in the shape of an S, is gradual and the colour is well balanced: the vibrant browns, green and purples of the foreground give way to the pale green and blue as the view recedes in the distance.

The luminosity of the colours especially in the foreground of the Stonebreaker is in accordance with the pre-Raphaelite painters' techniques of painting on a wet white ground. Despite the vibrancy of the colours in most Pre-Raphaelites artists' work the sense of space is minimal. Brett is more concerned with space than any other Pre-Raphaelite artist to be seen in Room 3.

According to John Ruskin the purpose of art is neither to please aesthetically nor to be decorative but to teach. In this way Pre-Raphaelite art conveyed a moral or spiritual messages. Brett inscribed on a sketch for the picture: "The Wilderness of the World" and "Outside Eden". The Stonebreaker could well refer to God's curse of Adam to eternal labour rather than the enjoyment of the fruits of Paradise. Another interpretation of the painting could the great length of geological time compared to the brevity of human life. Other elements of symbolism in the painting are the ancient tree, signifying the boy's constricted future, and the bullfinch as a symbol of the free human spirit.

When The Stonebreaker was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858 it was admired for its accurate detail and the delicacy of its finish. John Ruskin commented: "This after Lewis's is simply the most perfect piece of painting with respect to touch, in the Academy this year; in some points of precision it goes beyond anything the Pre-Raphaelites have done yet. I know of no such thistledown, no such chalk hills and elm trees, no such natural pieces of far away cloud in any of their works."

The Stonebreaker was sold to Thomas Avison a solicitor and Alderman of Liverpool immediately after it was exhibited. The painting was bequeathed to the Walker Art Gallery in 1918 by Mrs Sarah Ann Barrow.
Accession no: WAG 1632
Credit line: Bequeathed to the Walker Art Gallery by Mrs Sarah Ann Barrow in 1918
Location: Item not currently on display