In this painting the boy sits in a minutely detailed sunlit landscape undertaking an everyday task. The scene typifies the ‘truth to nature’ in Pre-Raphaelite art as advocated by John Ruskin, whose writings deeply impressed Brett. The landscape shows Box Hill near Dorking, Surrey; the stones are flints, and the plants, all botanically identifiable, tell us that Brett was painting in August or September. Plants, trees, rock formations and the effect of light on both the foreground and the distant panorama, are minutely described with scientific accuracy. Breaking stones for use in mending roads was a lowly, unskilled job often given to ‘paupers’. Brett may have had a symbolic meaning in mind: the bullfinch is a traditional symbol of the soul, and the withered tree with its single leafy branch may be intended to represent the triumph of the boy’s spirit over his menial physical labour.


  • Title: The Stonebreaker
  • Creator: John Brett
  • Date Created: 1857/1858
  • tag / style: John Brett; Pre-Rahphaelite; detailed; sunlit; landscape; task; truth to nature; Box Hill, Dorking, Surrey; stones; flints; plants; trees; breaking stones; bullfinch; symbol; soul; withered tree; leafy branch; menial physical labour; boy; dog; milestone; hammer; shirt
  • Physical Dimensions: w685 x h515 cm (Without frame)
  • Artist biographical information: John Brett was the son of a veterinary surgeon. He showed an early enthusiasm for geology, astronomy and painting. When he was 40 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 22 years old. However, he 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 Brett met one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Holman Hunt. His association with the Pre-Raphaelite artists and his reading of Ruskin's 'Modern Painters' had a profound effect on his painting.
  • Additional artwork information: This painting was the subject of an ‘Artwork Highlight’ talk at the Walker Art Gallery in 2000. To read the notes from this talk please follow this link: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/picture-of-month/displayPicture.asp?id=7&venue=2
  • Type: Oil on canvas
  • Rights: Bequeathed by Mrs Sarah Barrow in 1918

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