About the artwork
John Brett was the son of a veterinary surgeon. He showed an early enthusiasm for geology, astronomy and painting. When he was forty he became a member of the Royal Society of Astronomers. In his house on Putney Heath Lane, Brett installed a large telescope for astronomical observations.
Brett entered the Royal Academy as a student when he was twenty two years old. However Brett was more interested in the ideas of the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) and the work of the artists who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 than the classical ideals of the Royal Academy. In 1853 John Brett met one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Holman Hunt. Brett's association with the Pre-Raphaelite artists and his reading of Ruskin's Modern Painters had a profound effect on his painting.
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.
John Brett used to work both outdoors as well as in his studio; he often completed oil sketches of landscapes on the spot and he may have even used photographs like several Victorian painters at that time. Brett's remarks in a letter to his sister suggest that the Stonebreaker was to a great extent done outdoors with a few additions in the study " I can only work on it in sunny days- I hope it will look sunny. If it does not there will be no excuse for it for nothing has been done without the sun… I am gypsyish sun-tanned all over now." Different drawings survive of views, details and especially of the young boy, modelled by Brett's brother, Edwin.
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.
The painting Rocks, Scilly (1873) also by John Brett in Room 3 indicates Brett's continuing interest in geology. Trevose Head (1900)hung above the Stonebreaker marks the late phase of Brett's work when he painted coastal views in a looser and more atmospheric manner than his early work.