William Michael Rossetti assigned the word ‘pioneer’ to Hunt’s Awakening Conscience, Madox Brown’s Last of England, the emigrants on their voyage, Wallis’s Dead Stonebreaker and Paton’s Scene from the Indian Mutiny.1
Why this word ‘pioneer’? What is it that Rossetti recognised in the themes of these pictures which made the word pioneer an informative one? I shall examine the work by Henry Wallis as a means of answering this question.
Wallis most famous work is based upon the demise of the 18th century poet, Thomas Chatterton. The Death of Chatterton (1856, Tate, London) shows the seventeen year old Chatterton at the moment of his Flaubertian suicide, by arsenic poisoning, in 1770. Despite being so young, Chatterton had produced a wide range of writing, but it was his medieval themes poetry and romantic life which left a lasting impression upon the young Pre-Raphaelites and their associates. Dante Gabriel Rossetti helped research Chatterton’s life for T. H. Ward’s book on English Poets, during which process he became fascinated with the mysterious life Chatterton had lived. This interest inspired Rossetti’s poem of 1881 which talks of:
The angel-trodden stair thy soul could trace
Up Redcliffe’s spire.
The inclusion of the angel reminds one of a story author Louise J. Kaplan relays in her book, The Family Romance of the Impostor-poet Thomas Chatterton (1989). In response to a question by his sister, Chatterton said “Paint me an angel, with wings, and a trumpet, to trumpet my name over the world.”2 However, it was to be Wallis’s posthumous masterpiece which would fulfil Chatterton’s request.
Whilst this beautiful, tragic colourful work conveys a general Pre-Raphaelite interest in romantic poets, it also alludes to the reality of a death brought about by crippling poverty. It is this representation of poverty which leads me on to Wallis’ 1857 work, The Stonebreaker.
First exhibited in 1858 at the Royal Academy, The Stonebreaker was positively reviewed by critics. Whilst Wallis is considered to paint in the Pre-Raphaelite style, and is displayed alongside the PRB generally (e.g. The Death of Chatterton can be found in the PRB room of the Tate, room 9) the work itself has since been described as a move away from Pre-Raphaelitism toward Victorian Realism.
To answer why this is the case, we need to consider what the painting is about. This in turn will yield some light as to why William Michael Rossetti’s application of the term ‘pioneer’ to this work.
Wallis’ painting is similar in colour to the 1856 work by Millais, Autumn Leaves. The whole Stonebreaker canvas teems with a similar autumnal palette: russets, browns, musty yellows and autumnal greens. In this sense it is evident that Wallis sought Ruskinian notions of turning to nature whilst selecting everything, rejecting nothing.
Where the painting differs is through the subject matter. The story within the painting is one that was considered as being a public visual criticism of the Poor Law. The man within the image is designed to be symbolic, representative, and morally didactic. We could perceive the figure as being slumped, resting against the fern covered mound. His head hangs forward and his eyes are downcast, perhaps closed. His hands fall loosely between his legs. What is striking though is the hulk of his body, a seemingly strong figure worn out from the exhausting manual work he has undertaken. But the more one looks, the more one wonders whether the broken, almost dislocated position of the legs indicate something more socially deplorable than a tired worker.
The clues which help us retrieve a deeper more complex reading are not within the painting themselves. When the work was exhibited, a title was replaced with a quote from Thomas Carlyle:
Hardly-entreated Brother! For us thy back was 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 labour; and thy body, like thy soul, was not to know freedom.
Like Ruskin, Carlyle was a social reformer and the inclusion of this quote, helps us to better receive the message within the painting. Wallis did not paint a tired man, he painted an exploited, dehumanised worker made, through circumstances unknown, to earn a meagre meal and shelter in return for hard labour. Wallis painted someone whose back was bent on our behalf (‘our’ being anyone who was more fortunate enough than he) that his legs buckled beneath him.
The poignancy of the man’s status is all the more tragic if we recognise the yellow cloth he wears as indicative of a once fully employed labourer. What happened for this man to fall so far? There is certainly a Hardyian feel about this painting which is remarkably similar to passages with the much later novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
So let us ask ourselves, is this man dead or asleep? Once we know the original frame was inscribed with the Tennyson line ‘Now is done the long day’s work’ it seems we must consider the man to be dead. With these literary and political viewpoints physically attached to the painting, it is surely a guide by Wallis on how to read the painting. This is a social realist image which condemns the exploitation of poor people and makes comment on the 1834 Poor Law, which albeit well intentioned, criminalised the poor. Life in the workhouse was often worse than life outside of the workhouse, and this figure would have been considered as proof positive of the ineffectual and demoralizing Poor Law. As William Michael Rossetti said ‘The art which deals with his own day is especially that which the painter is qualified and called upon to execute’.3 I think this is why Rossetti says pioneers of art ‘must rely equally upon strong facts, strong conceptions, and solid portrait like actuality’. Using these criteria we should consider this painting as being a pioneering, empathetic portrayal of a man who became a victim to an ill judged social experiment.
1 William Michael Rossetti, Fine Art, Chiefly Contemporary (London: MacMillan, 1867), pg 9.
2 Louise J. Kaplan, The Family Romance of the Impostor-poet Thomas Chatterton (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press: 1989) pg 21.
3 William Michael Rossetti, Fine Art, Chiefly Contemporary (London: MacMillan, 1867), pg 7.