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"If only the geologists would leave me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the chink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses" [Ruskin 1851] (Ruskin to Henry Ackland 24 May 1851)
In this talk I shall concentrate on the three major works of Brett's Pre-Raphaelite period — that is, The Glacier of Rosenlaui, The Stonebreaker and The Val D'Aosta — and offer a reading of them which suggests that they should be be seen as symbolic landscapes which attempt to reconcile religion with the findings of science. This approach faces two major obstacles. Firstly the fact that Brett's reputation has been that of a literalist lacking any further theoretical or symbolic intentions. This reputation started quite early. Already in his review of the 1857 Russell Place Exhibition Coventry Patmore could bracket Brett with Seddon as artists whose "eyes were like lenses." This view of Brett has been reinforced by the frequently cited Ruskin review of The Val D'Aosta in which he criticises Brett for his lack of empathy.
However really there is little evidence to support this view. As Christopher Newall notes in the Catalogue for the present exhibition "Pre-Rapahelite landscape is the product of a scientific culture." This comment applies even more strongly to Brett who was himself a practicing scientist. Science involves not simply a photographic representation of nature but also classification and the elaboration of theories. Thus William Michael Rossetti, in an important but neglected review in The Spectator for 13 October 1855 of the Paris International Exhibition of 1855, argues that the superiority of Pre-Raphaelite Realism over its French counterpart, exemplified by Courbet, lay not simply in its more meticulous depiction of nature but in its concern to draw conclusions from these observations.
Secondly, one is faced the absence of documentary material for these years. Brett's diaries for an earlier period (1851-mid 1854) are very detailed but unfortunately the documentation becomes sparse just when we would most have wanted it to be otherwise. In a diary entry for May 18 1853 Brett comments. "I am going on fast towards preraphaelitism . . . . Millais and Hunt are truly fine fellows" (Diaries). However we lack any detailed information concerning how he later came to do this. Brett's two letters to his sister, and fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist Rosa Brett, relating to The Stonebreaker and the Val D'Aosta are of great interest but deal mainly with the technical aspects of the paintings rather than with his underlying intentions.
So what is the evidence for suggesting he may have had such intentions? There is a significant hint in Ruskin's root and branch attack, in a letter dated May 2 63, on Brett's work since The Val D'Aosta in which, bracketing himself with Brett, he says "Neither you nor I will ever have an idea" (Hickox, "Brett and Ruskin"). This only makes sense on the assumption that Brett had been attempting to do this. However the strongest evidence comes from the inscriptions on the 5 surviving sketches for The Stonebreaker which Christiana Payne and myself have analysed elsewhere (Hickox and Payne). These clearly demonstrate that Brett intended the work to illustrate the Fall of Man described in Genesis. In addition they suggest that Brett may have had Pilgrim's Progress in mind since the inscription "in the wilderness of this world" echoes the first line of Bunyan's work. Indeed one of the surviving sketches, possibly referring to Pilgrim's Progress, casts some doubt on the photographic realism of the foreground since it shows a milestone and a signpost both of which imply a major road. The former survives in the finished painting although the latter has been replaced by the (probably symbolic) blasted box tree (Hickox, "Stonebreaker").
While Brett's interest in science is well known, commentators on his work have seemed largely unaware that, at this period, he was still a deeply committed Christian although he was subsequently to lose his faith at some point in the next decade. For example in his letter of December 9 1856 he concludes a flattering portrait of Inchbold "and his whole nature is exquisitely tuned Christ living in him very manifestly" (Brett's diaries). The circumstantial, but quite strong evidence (summarised by Jan Marsh in her biography) that Brett proposed marriage to the deeply religious Christina Rossetti in the 57/8 period adds weight to this.
In conclusion, I would suggest that Brett in this period was both a man of science and also deeply religious. In many essential respects he could be described as an intellectual since his early diaries display a remarkable range of reading. One notes, for example, Ruskin's reference to him as "one of the keenest minded of my friends" (VII, 360-61). Consequently he is likely to have been highly sensitised to the mid-nineteenth-controversies surrounding science and religion. Indeed, his later loss of faith (unique, as Christopher Newall points out, among Pre-Raphaelite artists) helps to make this point.
Having sketched out the background to my interpretations I shall now proceed to look at the pictures in chronological order starting with the Glacier of Rosenlaui. There are 3 existing approaches to this picture. The first has been content to stop with the photographic realism position and rests on Brett's own comment in his brief December 56 diary entries concerning the picture. He recounts how a reading of Ruskin's Modern Painters Vol 1V, dealing with Mountain Beauty, had driven him to rush to Switzerland where he underwent his conversion to Pre-Raphaelite technique under the tutelage of Inchbold "and there and then saw that I had never painted in my life, but only fooled and slopped; and thenceforward attempted in a reasonable way to paint all I could see" (Diaries).
But does this brief account exhaust Brett's intentions or does the picture have a deeper meaning? Bendiner points to the fact that the glacier itself which gives the picture its title, unlike the gneiss and granite boulders, does not feature in Ruskin's book and goes on to argue that the picture illustrates recent theories of glacial activity The foreground boulders, which with the Glacier form, the focal point of the picture have been transported from the valley below to this height over time by glacial action. (Bendiner). Finally, I have put forward a theory, which is an extension of this The Glacier of Rosenlaui should be seen as a religious doubt picture contrasting the scientific and religious accounts of Creation. The key to understanding it, I would suggest, may be Agazziz's Catastrophe theory of evolution which managed, before Darwin's Origin of the Species published in 1859, to reconcile these accounts (Blackstone and Page)
Before going into detail I will make three comments regarding these positions. Firstly, if Bendiner is right then I am likely to be since, in the mid-nineteenth century, geology was not a neutral science having the most profound implications for established religious belief and certainly for Brett himself as a fervent Christian. Secondly, the unequivocally religious inscriptions on The Stonebreaker make it highly likely, if not absolutely certain that The Glacier also has a religious content. Finally the fact that these suggest The Stonebreaker was a theoretical picture again makes it likely, if not certain, that The Glacier was also not simply an exercise in photographic realism.
Recent visits by Christopher Newall and Christopher Gridley have confirmed the general topographical accuracy of the picture as also do several interesting contemporary photos of the area collected by Christopher Gridley. However while realism is one thing complete photographic accuracy is another and one may question the accuracy of the depiction of the boulders which in the photos are shown scattered around the foreground but in Brett's painting are suspiciously neatly grouped at the edge of the glacier. One suspects that they are located precisely in this position to make a point which brings us back to Bendiner's argument that the painting illustrates recent theories of glacial movement, i.e. the force of the glacier has pushed the boulders from the valley below to this height.
Turning to my own religion + science interpretation I would suggest that The Glacier should be seen as a Victorian Doubt picture which contrasts the religious and scientific accounts of history. An interesting analogy is provided by Malcolm Warner's analysis of Dyce's Pegwell Bay in which he suggests that the picture contrasts these two accounts. Donati's comet in the sky, and the fossils in the cliffs convey a sense of infinite ie scientific time. While religious time comes from the fact that Pegwell Bay itself is close to the spot at which St Augustine landed in his mission to convert the English. (14)
Harry Bowler's The Doubt — Can these dry bones live? exhibited at the RA in 1855, a picture which Brett is quite likely to have seen, represents, also explores the theme of grappling with religious doubt. It is based on Tennyson's In Memoriam, the classic Victorian poem of religious doubt, which had an extremely wide audience and one which Brett, would certainly have known. In the poem Tennyson, who was influenced by Lyell's work on geology, grapples with the threat to faith presented by recent geological discoveries in the famous lines
Are God and Nature then at strife
That nature lends such evil dreams
So careful of the type she seems
So careless of the single life
So careful of the type? but no;
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries ' A thousand types are gone
I care for nothing; all must go'
The line "From scarped cliff and quarried stone" neatly encapsulates the main features of The Glacier, both visually and intellectually, and one wonders whether it underlies Brett's painting? Certainly Brett was to use poetry extensively as a basis for his later work (Patmore, and the two Brownings for example) and a sketch dated 1857 was intended as an illustration of Tennyson's poem (Private Collection). I would suggest, therefore, that the picture has a religious as well as a scientific content and that it is intended to represent the Biblical Flood, which destroyed all life on earth. Thus I would read the glacier as also symbolising the Biblical Flood. Visually this makes sense since the full frontal depiction of the glacier gives it the appearance of a raging torrent about to overwhelm the spectator.
Noah's ark? I would argue that this is symbolised by the detail of the five fir trees atop the cliff at the highest point in the picture, like Noah's ark resting on Mt Ararat safe from the raging torrent below. Aside from the lichen on the ledges these are the only animate life depicted in the picture and symbolises Resurrection. In the typological symbolism of Victorian Christianity, in which The Old Testament was seen to prefigure the New, Noah was seen as a type, ie forerunner of Christ, who was sometimes depicted as 'the Ark of the New Covenant'
Against the photographic realist view I would argue that, as with the boulders, the five fir trees are suspiciously neatly grouped. It is interesting to note that the number five seems to reoccur in Brett's work of this period and may possibly have a symbolic significance as well as the five firs five types of plant are depicted in the foreground of The Stonebreaker and five silver birches in The foreground of The Val D'Aosta.
Support for the view that the Glacier contains religious symbolism comes from Brett's painting Portrait of a Young Girl in Blue Dress (dated 1856), which shows a young girl holding five white quills, and two dark ones, in an inkwell (Christies Sale 13 May, 1992). It seems clear that this carries a symbolic meaning of some kind. As we have seen the number five is repeated in the five fir trees in The Glacier, and it is possible that the quills in the inkwell stand for the Pentateuch — the five books of the Old Testament containing the law. Of course it was mankind's breaking the law which provoked God's wrath provoking the Deluge. Thus I note an interesting possible link between this picture and Millais's The Return of the Dove from the Ark, which also depicts young girls. It may be significant that both paintings have a black background, which in the case of the Millais is clearly intended to symbolise the Deluge.
It is, therefore, possible that Brett had in mind Agazziz's Catastrophe theory of evolution, which managed to hold science and religion together before the advent of Darwin was to blow them apart. Agazziz's theories, which contrasted with the uniformitarianism of Lyell, had important theological implications since they supported Creationism. The key issue which confronted pre-Darwinian geology, reflected in Tennyson's poem, was the apparent destruction of successive species as evidenced in the fossil record. He had concluded that great sheets of ice had once blanketed the earth destroying all existing forms of life from which God then created the new and unique form of Man. Thus the Biblical account of the Flood, only the last in a series of catastrophes could be fitted into this framework thus reconciling religion and science. It is interesting to note that Agazziz is reported to have thought highly of the picture when it was included in the Exhibition of British Art to America. (Ruxton wrote to William Michael Rossetti in a letter dated 13 April 1858: "Professor Agazziz gives unqualified praise to Brett's two pictures The Glacier and The Two Horns" [Peattie].)
This hypothesis may have some bearing on Brett's later loss of faith — unique, as we have seen, among the Pre-Raphaelites despite the widespread knowledge concerning scientific advances. Possibly their response, indeed that of the majority of Victorians, would have been to echo Tennyson's conclusion in In Memoriam: "Believing where we cannot prove." However, as a committed scientific intellectual, Brett may have demanded something more and for a time Agazziz's theory offered this.
Turning to The Stonebreaker I have an opposite problem. Having brought religion into The Glacier how can I bring science into this picture for which I have previously offered a purely religious analysis ? Clearly the pile of meticulously depicted white chalk flints, praised by Ruskin in his 1858 RA review, form an important focus of the picture. A feature, I note missing from the other Stonebreaker picture of that year by Henry Wallis, which has a far more overtly social content. Brett would have seen the Box Hill area as an ancient landscape and it is interesting to note that it is not too distant from the Sussex downs where many of the fossils were discovered. This leads me to put a speculative question. Supposing the picture was called "The Geologist," would this be an inappropriate title? (Which it would certainly be for the other versions of this subject). One could easily read the central figure as a geologist pondering the mysteries of evolution.
Consequently I would suggest that The Stonebreaker, like The Glacier, offers both the scientific and the religious accounts of history. However. as in the earlier painting, religion ultimately triumphs Thus at the highest point in the picture the blasted box tree, which may be based on Renaissance models, ends in a bullfinch and a sprig of new growth clearly symbolising Resurrection.
Finally, to move to The Val D'Aosta. It seems almost sacrosanct to impute theoretical or symbolic intentions to this painting given its justified reputation for meticulous realism. However, of course, these qualities are not in conflict in Pre-Raphaelitism as the work of Hunt and Millais demonstrates.
Existing accounts have tended, following Ruskin, to concentrate on the topographical accuracy of the midground and background and to ignore the foreground which contains, I would suggest, both Science and Religion. It is curious that the foreground has been ignored given that its scale in relation to the painting is almost identical to that of the glacier and the boulders in The Glacier, which clearly form the focus of that picture. However, in The Val D'Aosta the foreground seems dwarfed by the mountain vista in the rear. Interestingly if this were to be removed one would have a painting similar in it's structure to Hunt's Strayed Sheep.
From the scientific viewpoint the rock formations in the foreground clearly reprise those in the foreground of The Glacier and demonstrate Brett's continued preoccupation with geology. and with the effects of glacial activity. What evidence is there to suggest the picture also has a religious content? I would make the following suggestions. The pure white (ie without sin ) goat relates To Hunt's The Scapegoat ie the scapegoat (Leviticus) was seen as a type or forerunner of Christ Thus it is interesting to note that Boyce records Brett's presence at a meeting of painters at Hunt's house shortly before his departure for the Italian Alps. The sleeping girl under the boulder may reflect the sleeping disciples in Gethsemane. I note that she wears, in addition to a crucifix, a scarlet scarf similar to that worn by the Stonebreaker. Both may echo the scarlet scarf worn by Hunt's Scapegoat.
On the right hand side of the foreground there are five silver birches, again the repetition of the five motifs, whose white trunks mirror the whiteness of the goat. The tree itself may have symbolic significance since Old Testament Kings, prefiguring Christ, were anointed with oil of balsam taken from the birch tree. Of the five only the central tree seems to move, as if propelled by an invisible wind pointing towards the goat and forming a cruciform pattern with its neighbour. Possibly the invisible wind represents the invisible wind at Pentecost (again the five motif) when Christ appeared to the disciples.
Finally I note that The Val D'Aosta repeats The Glacier and The Stonebreaker in one crucial respect. A cross, symbolising Resurrection, is shown at the highest point in the picture, dominating the vista below. This repeats. I would argue, the same detail in the earlier pictures in both cases symbolising Resurrection through Christ's sacrifice. In all three cases, I would conclude, Brett's intention was to juxtapose the scientific and religious accounts of history but to give pre-eminence to the latter.
Bendiner, Kenneth. An Introduction to Victorian book, Yale University Press, 1985.
Blackstone, Vernon, and Andrew Page. Evolution, The Great Debate. Lion Publishing, 1980.
Brett, John. Diaries. Private Collection.
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. Jonathan Cape, 1994.
Rossetti, William Michael. Selected Letters. Ed. Roger Peattie. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London, 1903-1912.
Warner, Malcolm. The Victorians: British book 1837-1901. Exhibition Catalogue, Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 1997.
Last modified 12 June 2020