John Brett was born near Reigate, Surrey, and studied at the RA Schools in London. He was greatly impressed by the writings of John Ruskin on art and geology, and by the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. Meeting J. W. Inchbold, another outdoor realist painter, added to Brett's determination to paint 'detail in nature'. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, and the following year showed The Glacier of Rosenlaui, an incredibly detailed landscape study illustrating how the shape of the land could be governed by ice action, and showing three blatantly ice-deposited rocks in the foreground. This picture established Brett's reputation, and The Stonebreaker of the following year and another detailed landscape, Val d'Aosta in 1859 gained him further repute. These pictures were much praised by Ruskin, who became a great friend of Brett.
Brett later concentrated almost entirely on seascapes and landscapes, especially around the coast of Britain. A particularly good example is his Ramsgate Sands of 1894. From the Balcony, Cliff Cottage, Lee (1896) is a geological study of weathered rocks in water reminiscent of the Rosenlaui picture of 40 years previously. Apart from art and geology, he also became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He lived in London, in Harley Street, and later in a house of his own design in Putney. He became ARA in 1881.
The Glacier of Rosenlaui is at the Tate Gallery, and The Stonebreaker is at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Examples of his later coast and seascapes are at the Walker, at the Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth, in Nottingham, and in the Tate - Britannia's Realm, which was bought by the Chantrey Bequest.
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