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Stonebreaker

Henry Wallis, 1857-58
Collection: 
Birmingham Art Gallery

 

At the 1858 Royal Academy exhibition The Stonebreaker was exhibited without a title, but, the first line from Alfred Tennyson’s poem “A Dirge” was inscribed on the frame: “Now is done thy long day’s work”.

 

In the exhibition catalogue The Stonebreaker was accompanied by a quotation from Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (Book III, Chapter IV; 1834): “Venerable to me is the hard Hand; crooked, coarse…indefeasibly royal, as of the Sceptre of this Planet. Venerable too is the rugged face, all weather-tanned, besoiled, with its rude intelligence; for it is the face of a Man living manlike. Oh, but the more venerable for thy rudeness, and even because we must pit as well as love thee! 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 wer so marred. For in the 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.”

 

An anonymous critic praised Wallis’s The Stonebreaker when he saw it at the 1858 Royal Academy Exhibition:

“…[W]e dimly distinguished the dead stonebreaker, with his pauper smock-frock, corduroys and highlows [a kind of boot] partly lying on the heap of hard granite he has been toiling at through the cloudless, sultry, day with insufficient nourishment; and partly toppling forward among the brambles which line the road-side. Poor wretch, all his path in life has been beset with thorns! But he is at rest at last; no one waits for or will seek him; no one will miss him. His pale, parchment-drawn face and low borw, tell of stolid ignorance and abject misery. He has never been poacher or housebreaker; or come to London to be refined into a swindler and pickpocket, and he is still more harmless and uncomplaining now. He is very dead. I long, writing stoat has mounted his foot, and lifts its nose, scenting death….”

Anonymous review in Daily News (10 May 1858), excerpted in Leslie Parris, ed., The Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1984), p. 167.

 

Robin Hamlyn notes:

“The genesis of the work is unknown but it was undoubtedly inspired by a familiar sight in rural areas where, under the much criticized Poor Law system, workhouse guardians frequently employed paupers in breaking stones for the repair of parish roads in return for food and lodging.”

Robin Hamlyn, “Henry Wallis, The Stonebreaker” in Leslie Parris, ed., The Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1984), p. 167.

Similar Subjects by Other Artists

Edwin Landseer, The Stonebreaker and His Daughter, 1830 (Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

Gustave Courbet, Stone Breakers, 1849

About the Artist

Born: London, 21 February 1830
Died: Croydon, Surrey, 20 December 1916
Nationality: English