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Brett's boulders

The English artist John Brett (1831-1902) was one of the great exponents of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting. His very detailed evocations of landforms and processes clearly display the influence of geology - and particularly glacial history. In fact, two of his paintings seem to bring – literally – to the fore, a contemporary scientific debate over the interpretation of erratic boulders. Alexis Drahos* explores these two canvases.

Geoscientist 19.3 March 2009

Fascination with geoscience was common among Victorian artists, who shared with other lay people an interest in this emerging new discipline, and became increasingly conversant with the “hot topics” in contemporary geology - either by socialising with scientists or reading about the subject. John Brett and two of his paintings The glacier of Rosenlaui and Val d’Aosta provide a case in point.

the Glacier of Rosenlaui by John Brett

The Glacier of Rosenlaui

John Brett was born in Surrey, the son of an army officer. In the early 1850s, he took drawing lessons with James Duffield Harding and in 1854 entered the Royal Academy schools.

After a trip to Switzerland during the summer 1856, where he was fascinated by the beauty of the mountains he saw there, the painter tackled a very interesting and puzzling canvas featuring a glacier. At the time, paintings of glaciers were not common, though mountainous scenes had experienced some celebrity in previous decades, with the Romantic “rediscovery of the Alps (from the middle of the 18th Century on) – a discovery that mirrored geologists’ own fascination with mountain building processes, at least on the Continent of Europe.

The Glacier of Rosenlaui (Tate Gallery) was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1857.
In the foreground lie three boulders and scores of pebbles. This assemblage of stones is treated with an almost visionary clarity – so much so that we can even perform a rudimentary identification of the rock types concerned. The largest boulder is metamorphic with clear undulating foliation. The shale-like stone(lower right) displays angular cleavage and sharp edges, and the boulder in the centre of the plateau has a granular texture and unstratified form.

All three differ from the bedrock, and the numerous pebbles that surround them. The peculiarity of these rocks is that they clearly do not belong – all are quite different from the limestone that lies beneath the glacier. They seem to ask the viewer – “How did we get here?”

Glacial erratics had in fact puzzled the naturalists for much of the 18th Century. What natural force could have carried such objects to their resting places? Numerous scientists had claimed that the Deluge had lifted them to the mountains tops. Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1855) suggested that they had been lodged in icebergs or ice-rafts, and deposited like dropstones. Then, in 1837, Swiss naturalist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873) declared that glaciers had been responsible. He went on to suggest that vast sheets of ice covered much of Europe in the remote past. He also held that ice had been responsible for the periodic destruction of faunas and floras throughout Earth history, and not the “biblical” style floods suggested by Georges Cuvier (1769-1832).

It is highly likely that these rocks are invested by the artist with a real meaning, evoking the scientific turmoil of the times. By the early 1850s, Agassiz’s theories had become widely accepted and Sir Charles Lyell’s ninth edition of Principles of Geology (1853) definitely attributed the presence of erratic boulders on the Alpine Peaks to glacial action.

Val d'Aosta, byt John Brett

Val d’Aosta

Exhibited in 1859 at the Royal Academy (two years after the Glacier of Rosenlaui) this painting is the last great alpine landscape painted by Brett. Unlike the Glacier of Rosenlaui, this landscape shows a panoramic view of a quiet valley. In the background we observe snowy mountains wrapped in thick grey clouds. The mountains in the distance are the Testa du Rutor and Monte Paramont.

Nevertheless, despite the grand setting the focus of attention once again seems to be the large boulders in the foreground, where a sleeping girl rests under the watchful eye of her goat. Amid this bucolic scene of peaceful agricultural life enclosed by protecting mountains, Brett has hidden a message about the dramatic history of this apparently serene landscape. The presence of the glacial blocks seems to show that all has not always been as it now appears; that landscapes speak of immense history and the huge forces that shaped them in the immensity of deep time.

Both these paintings stand witness to the broad influence of Agassiz’s theories, and the fascination of erratic boulders among scientists of the Victorian era, when science and art were often closely linked by a common interest in landscape and landscape evolution.

*Alexis Drahos is studying for a doctorate at the Sorbonne, Paris, on the relationship between geology and landscape painting in the 19th Century.