The Stonebreaker. Henry Wallis. 1857-58. Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 31 inches.
After The Death of Chatterton Wallis’s The Stonebreaker was the other major success of his relatively brief Pre-Raphaelite period. Both pictures were highly rated by Ruskin who wrote of the latter, ‘On the whole, to my mind, the picture of the year; and but narrowly missing being a first-rate of any year’ (Ruskin 14.170).
The Stonebreaker was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858 together with the first line of Tennyson’s “A Dirge” inscribed on the frame and a quotation from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus in the Catalogue:
Hardly entreated brother! For us was thy back so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed; thou wert our conscript, on whom the lot fell, and fighting our battles wert so marred. For in thee too lay a God-created form, but it was not to be unfolded; encrusted must it stand with the thick adhesions and defacements of labor; and thy body, like thy soul, was not to know freedom.
Yet, despite its success, we know very little about the background to the picture. No preliminary sketches for it survive, and it is not clear exactly when or where it was painted. Although there is a possibility it was painted during a visit to North Wales with Mary Anne Meredith made in late summer 1857 (Johnson 124). The scenery seems to fit that location and the picture has an almost autumnal feeling to it. The subject clearly returns to the tragic theme of the dead hero victimized by society exemplified by Chatterton. Wallis’s decision to return to this may well have been influenced by Ruskin’s silence regarding A Sculptor’s Workshop which had been his major contribution to the RA in 1857. As in Chatterton there is an overwhelming sense of stillness with a concentration on the dead body, which, in the case of The Stonebreaker is accentuated, as Ruskin notes, by the stoat climbing onto the laborer’s boot; the only sign of life in the entire picture. The rich color, concerning which Ruskin makes some criticisms, combined with the twilight makes the picture reminiscent of Millais’sAutumn Leaves which had been exhibited at the RA in 1856 along with Chatterton.
Left to right: (a) The Death of Chatterton by Wallis. (b) Autumn Leaves by Sir John Everett Millais. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
Julian Treuherz has discussed the social message conveyed by the picture in relation to its critique of the Poor Law which condemned paupers to this kind of labor (Treuherz). This would certainly have reflected Wallis’s own radical political beliefs. Nevertheless it should be seen as more than simply an exercise in Social Realism, for it continues the Promethean theme of human beings challenging an arbitrary divine authority that runs through all Wallis’s works, linking them to a Shelley-inspired intellectual tradition (Hickox). In Sartor Resartus Carlyle moves from praising the laborer to extolling ‘The Inspired Thinker, who with heaven-made implement conquers Heaven for us!’ A Promethean allusion, since Prometheus is punished for stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to men who can then become God- like themselves. From this perspective The Stonebreaker should be seen in association with Wallis’s two pictures relating to Montaigne and Shakespeare of the previous year. Taken together the three pictures include both mental and manual labor in the same fashion as Madox Brown’s contemporaneous Work.
This Promethean theme may also have been expressed in pictorial terms. Thus the reference to a ‘God created form’ in the quotation from Carlyle may be significant since the monumental scale of the figure, accentuated by the way it melts into the rest of the foreground, seems to give it the appearance of a fallen giant or God.
Along with The Stonebreaker Wallis exhibited two works (both lost) which expressed his radical beliefs- Henry Marten at Cheptstow Castle and Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower circa ad 1600. During the Civil War Henry Marten had been a Regicide and extreme Republican and was imprisoned at Chepstow Castle after the Restoration. Following the accession of James I Walter Raleigh was falsely accused of treason and was, like Christopher Marlowe, suspected of being an atheist.
Although span The Stonebreaker embodies the same theme of the dead tragic hero as span Chatterton there is one significant difference between the two works. Prior to span Chatterton Wallis had been an almost unknown artist who specialized in rather dull interiors. The success of Chatterton, both a as a result of Ruskin’s review and the sensation it caused when exhibited at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857, had propelled him to fame. In 1856, Wallis had used a quotation from Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, to accompany the picture. Marlowe at this time was still far from being accepted in the literary canon having a reputation as a radical, immoral outsider who had been suspected of atheism. In contrast, in 1858 it may be significant that he uses a quotation from Tennyson, a more mainstream poet, and one particularly favored by the Pre-Raphaelites. Wallis’s inclusion in the Hogarth Club, formed in 1858 to encourage the creation of pictures based on modern life, also marked his acceptance into the mainstream Pre-Raphaelite movement.
There are major puzzles regarding the appearance of two works on the Stonebreaker subject, Wallis’s and Brett’s version, at the RA in 1868 and also concerning a possible relationship between the them and Courbet’s The Stonebreakers. To take first a possible connection between Wallis and Courbet, Wallis had studied for a period at Gleyre’s atelier in the early 1850s and visited France in Spring 57 to paint Montaigne The library. More crucially, like Courbet, he was both a Republican and an atheist. Nevertheless there is no evidence that Courbet’s social realism had any impact on Wallis’s art at this period.
Still less is there any likelihood of a direct connection between the deeply religious Brett and Courbet. There is no evidence that Brett and Wallis met in 1857, although they were both present at a meeting of the Hogarth Club in May 1858, and any collaboration seems unlikely given the two pictures are so dissimilar. One possibility (Hickox and Payne) is that both artists may have been alerted to the subject by William Michael Rossetti’s review of the 1855 International Exhibition in which he compares the French and the Pre-Raphaelite versions of Realism and specifically mentions Courbet’s picture. He claims that the superiority of Pre-Raphaelitism lays both in superior finish and the way it conveys a moral message following in the Hogarthian tradition. In contrast, French Realism exemplified by Courbet, is rough and ready and merely descriptive.
William Michael Rossetti’s Spectator reviews of the picture are significant given that he covertly shared Wallis’s Republican and atheist opinions and they extend his comments regarding the 1855 International Exhibition. He starts with a general comment on the exhibition which gives Wallis pride of place.
However, the whole body of our art is gradually settling itself into Praeraffaelitism, as is most apparent in this collection; and the greatest work included in it is from one of the distinctively Praeraffaelite painters. We mean Mr. Wallis's dead Stonebreaker: a picture very wonderful, dreadful, yet with a great peace in it too. [May 1 1858]
Later he offers an extended and highly laudatory appraisal of the picture starting with the assertion that “the dead stonebreaker of Mr. Wallis is a picture of the sacredness and solemnity which dwell in a human creature, however seared, and in death, however obscure” (May 29 1858). Moreover it is interesting, perhaps betraying his own sympathies, that he also praises Wallis’s other two works, exhibited with The Stonebreaker which both celebrate the latter’s radical heroes.
"Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower" and the regicide "Henry Martin in Chepstow Castle", continue the series of episodical illustration of great lives to which Mr. Wallis has devoted his firm and disciplined power. Raleigh, gaunt and enduring, pauses in his writing to muse introspectively over the bubble-blowing of his boy; and Martin nerves himself, book in hand, to gaze on sunset across the prison-bars which deny him a man's native right to its purple glories. Two grizzled men who know how to suffer and to die. [May 8 1858]
Ruskin, John. The Works. Eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. London, George Allen, 1903-1912.
Hickox, Michael, “The Political Background to the Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis,“ Victorian Web.
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.
Johnson, Diane. The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and other Lesser Lives. London, Heinemann, 1973..
Last modified 15 January 2014