In ‘Science and Religion in the Pre-Raphaelite work of John Brett ’ I put forward a general case for seeing the major works of his Pre-Raphaelite period as symbolic landscapes attempting to grapple with the opposing claims of Science and Religion. Brett in this period was deeply religious but also had strong scientific interests (Payne 2010). Thus all three works display a keen interest in geology which in the mid-mineteenth century, prior to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, was central to ongoing debates concerning the truth of the Bible.
Here I shall focus in greater detail on The Stonebreaker, often seen as Brett’s masterpiece, which was painted at Mickleham in the summer and autumn of 1857 and exhibited at the RA in 1858 where it attracted praise from Ruskin. Traditionally it has been assumed that this was a realist depiction of landscape painted from a single view point. However closer examination suggests this could not have been the case. The milestone on the left, for example, must have been taken from a nearby road and the same applies to the signpost which it is associated in a preliminary sketch (Hickox and Payne 96) The pile of flints suggest a quarry but there appears to have been none in the immediate area above the Druids Grove from which The Stonebreaker was painted. With respect to the background Brett made two significant changes to the view he would have been seen from the spot behind the Druid’s Grove where the picture was painted. Firstly, Box Hill is brought much closer to the viewer eliminating a large section of the middle ground. Secondly, the spire of Mickleham Church is represented, which, in terms of the line of the line of sight to Box Hill, should not be in the picture at all. This suggests that Brett may have had a religious symbolic purpose for including it. (personal communication).
I shall argue that Brett constructed the landscape in order to make a number of symbolic points of a religious nature. One of these is suggested by the inscription ‘ outside Eden’ on a preliminary sketch dated August 7 57.This suggests the Stonebreaker represents the Biblical Adam expelled from Eden and compelled to work in the sweat of his brow. The ‘outside Eden’ theme is also implied by the division of the painting into two distinct halves. Whereas the background evokes Paradise the foreground is choked with weeds, stones and a dead tree which replaces the signpost in the preliminary sketch. This is crowned by a sprig of new growth and a bullfinch arguably symbolising Resurrection Is the latter perhaps a reference to Lizzie Siddal’s beloved pet bullfinch? At this time Brett seems to have been close to the Rossettis and to have contemplated proposing marriage to Christina Rossetti (Marsh 94).
Two paintings by Wiliam Holman Hunt discussed below: Left: The Scapegoat Right: A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids. [Click upon thumbnails for larger images and additional discussions.]
If the Stonebreaker represents the Biblical Adam he could also be seen as a type (ie forerunner) of Christ who suffers death for the sins of mankind. This he wears a white shirt, symbolising his innocence, and a red scarf which stands for his shedding of blood for mankind. This might link the picture to Hunt’s The Scapegoat (1854-6). From Brett’s December 1856 we learn that Hunt had liked his Glacier of Rosenlaui and he is a likely influence on Brett in this period. Turning to the pile of flints arguably a number of these have a skull like appearance, in particular the one on which the boy is working, suggesting a reference to Golgotha i.e. the place of the skull where Christ was crucified. In short the entire right side of the painting can be read as an allegory of Christ’s Death and Resurrection.
Brett chose to paint the foreground view from a spot on Box Hill above the Druids Grove, a group of ancient yew trees which can be glimpsed through the foreground screen of trees. The Druids Grove was a well known as a place reputably haunted by evil spirits and Murray’s guide to the area, which Brett must almost certainly have consulted, makes reference to it. The Druids represent the old religion of the British Isles before the coming of Christianity. Visually the grove is contrasted with Mickleham Church in the mid ground, creating the same contrast between the old and the new religions as in Hunt’s A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids (1850). Moreover yews, typically found in churchyards, symbolize Death so their contrast with the church echoes the Death/Resurrection contrast represented by the dead tree with a sprig of new growth.
Another religious theme in the painting is a reference to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim’s Way runs close to the site of the painting and this may help to explain why Brett chose it. One of the preliminary sketches is inscribed ‘the wilderness of this world ‘echoing the opening line of Bunyan’s work while another sketch is inscribed ‘the wayside’ The former sketch includes both a milestone and a signpost pointing in three directions. This may well refer to the point in Bunyan’s work where Christian is confronted by three choices — The Hill of Difficulty (i.e. the straight and narrow path) or two treacherous paths marked ‘Danger’ and ‘Destruction’. The same sketch also carries the rubbed out inscription ‘the blue hills of hope’ in the top right hand corner. This may refer to the end of Christian’s journey when he reaches the Delectable Mountains on his way to the Celestial City. Indeed Brett seems to have constructed the background of the painting to illustrate Pilgrim’s Progress. A straight and narrow path leads up the hill on the left (the Hill of Difficulty) and the blue hills to the right stand for the Delectable Mountains — the blue hills of hope that topographically seem to occupy an area which includes Leith Hill on the map. (So it is interesting to note that John Brown, the author of Bunyan, his Life and Work, proposed Leith Hill as the model for the Delectable Mountains. Although it is is unclear whether Brett was aware of this identification.) Why should Brett have wanted to introduce this theme into a painting with a different subject? One clue comes from the fact that in the second part of Bunyan’s work Christian’s wife and companion on his journey is called Christiana. Could he have seen this as a reference to the deeply religious Christina Rossetti and his hope that they might journey through life together?
Returning to the August 7 sketch this shows a single thistle (present in the final painting). Taken together with the heap of stones and the inscription ‘the wayside’ this seems to refer to the Parable of the Sower in the New Testament: ‘ some fell by the wayside . . . fell on stony ground . . . and some fell among thorns’ (Mark 4:4-7). This parable can be seen to reinforce the ‘many are called but few are chosen’ message of Bunyan’s work.. The Celestial City can only be reached via the Hill of Difficulty.
Finally, one may ask why these references were not picked up at the time and the painting was for long seen as simply a naturalistic landscape. Arguably this derives from Ruskin’s 1858 review where he ignores both the figure subject and the symbolic aspects of the picture while praising Brett’s handling of landscape. However, it is clear from his later scornful reference to the figure subject that he was aware of Brett’s Pre-Raphaelite intentions (Hickox 96).Ruskin’s attitude, and possibly his preference for Wallis’s more obviously social version of the subject, might be explained by the fact that he was losing his religious faith by 1858.
Brett, John. Diaries. Private Collection.
Cordindly, David. ‘’ The stonebreaker’’ an examination of the landscape in a painting by John Brett, Burlington Magazine, March 1982.
Hickox, Michael. "John Brett and Ruskin." Burlington Magazine, August 1996.
Hickox, Michael. "John Brett's The Stonebreaker." The Review of The Pre-Raphaelite Society, Spring 1995.
Hickox, Michael, and Christiana Payne. "Sermons in Stones: John Brett's The Stonebreaker Reconsidered" in Ellen Harding (ed) The Pre-Raphaelites Reframed. Scolar Press, 1996.
Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti. London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.
Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London, 1903-1912.
Last modified 5 January 2013