Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Brett, John
BRETT, JOHN (1831–1902), landscape painter, born at Bletchingley, Surrey, on 8 Dec. 1831, was eldest son of Captain Charles Curtis Brett of the 12th lancers by his wife Ann Philbrick. At an early age he attended drawing classes at Dublin, and then had passing thoughts of joining the army. He entered the schools of the Royal Academy in 1854, and soon afterwards became deeply affected by the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1858 he sent to the Academy exhibition a picture entitled 'The Stone-breaker,' which was enthusiastically welcomed by Ruskin. Brett was with Ruskin in Italy next year, and there he painted the 'Val d'Aosta,' in which Pre-Raphaelite principles were carried still further. Ruskin bought the picture, and it remained his property till his death, when it was purchased by Mr. R. P. Cooper. A photogravure appears as frontispiece to Ruskin's 'Works' (library edition, vol. xiv.). In his 'Academy Notes' for 1859 Ruskin described the painting as 'historical' and even 'meteorological' landscape, toilsomely and delicately handled. From this time onward Brett worked unswervingly on the same lines, producing a series of landscapes which would demand a very high place in the world's esteem, if the object of painting were the closest possible imitation of natural phenomena. After 1870 his subjects were almost always taken from the southern coasts of England, especially the rocky shores of Cornwall. Among his better works were 'Spires and Steeples of the Channel Islands' (1875), 'Mounts Bay' (1877), 'Cornish Lions' (1878), and 'The Sere and Yellow Leaf' (1895). Two examples of his work, 'From the Dorsetshire Cliffs' (1871) and 'Britannia's Realm' (1880), are in the Tate Gallery, the latter purchased by the Chantrey trustees. The 'Norman Archipelago' is in the Manchester Gallery and 'North-west Gale off the Longships Lighthouse' in the Birmingham Gallery.
Brett painted in a scientific rather than an artistic spirit, caring more for detailed veracity of record than for the creation of beauty. In other ways he showed that his heart was more with science than with art. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society on 9 June 1871, and devoted a considerable part of the strange house which he built in Keswick Road, Putney, to the purposes of astronomical observation. On the roof were mounted an equatorial telescope, resting on a solid brick pier going down to the foundation level of the house, and an azimuth reflector. In an introductory essay to the catalogue of a collection of his sketches, shown by the Fine Art Society in 1886, he devoted most of his space to scientific polemics. His Putney house was designed entirely on utilitarian principles. The floors and flat roofs were of asphalte, the ceilings brick vaults, the heating done by hot water pipes, everything to minimise human labour and avoid dirt. The house was electrically protected against burglars and other uninvited intruders.
Brett was elected A.R.A. in 1881, but never attained the rank of R.A. He died in his house at Putney on 8 Jan. 1902. He married in 1870, and had four sons and three daughters who survived him. A portrait in oils by himself, painted about 1865, belongs to his son, Mr. Michael Brett. A bust in bronze, executed in 1888 by Thomas Stirling Lee, is in the possession of the Art Workers' Guild, London, of which Brett was at one time master.
[The Times, 9 Jan. 1902; Cat. of Nat. Gall, of Brit. Art (Tate Gallery); Bryan's Dict.; Percy Bate's English Pre-Raphaelite Painters, 1899; Art Journal for 1882, p. 57; Roy. Astr. Soc. Notices, 1902, lxii. 238–40; private information.]