Isambard Kingdom Brunel
1 of 13 portraits by Robert Howlett
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
by Robert Howlett
albumen print, November 1857
11 1/4 in. x 8 7/8 in. (286 mm x 225 mm)
Given by Mr and Mrs A. J. W. Vaughan, 1972
This portraitback to top
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the son of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, earned early experience working on his father's Thames Tunnel. He went on to design suspension bridges, the Great Western Railway and railways in Italy, India and Australia. His greatest fame however came as a designer of ocean-going steamships including the Great Eastern, before whose massive chains he stands in this famous photograph. Little is known of the photographer Robert Howlett whom the Illustrated Times rightly called 'one of the most skilful photographers of the day'. He died less than a year after this picture was taken, poisoned, it was suggested, by his own photographic chemicals.
Related worksback to top
Linked publicationsback to top
- 100 Portraits, p. 73
- Smartify image discovery app
- Victorian Portraits Resource Pack, p. 19
- 100 Photographs, 2018, p. 23 Read entry
Robert Howlett (1831-58) posed the legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) standing confidently in front of the launching chains of one of his most ambitious and frustrating projects, the grand ocean steamship Great Eastern. After numerous delays, the ship would not be launched until a year after this picture was made, and suffered a crippling explosion during its maiden voyage. Designed by Brunel himself, it was five times the size of its nearest rival,and revolutionary in design and construction. This portrait was taken as part of a series of photographs commissioned to document the building of the vessel. (The most familiar photograph from the series is shown here with the variants P662 and P1979 - the latter a stereoscopic slide.) The decision to show Brunel standing against the chains, and not near the hull or on the deck of the ship itself, was inspired. The contrast in scale reinforces the seemingly superhuman power of Victorian engineering, but it also humanises Brunel, showing him dwarfed in front of one of his own creations.
- Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 46 Read entry
The vast links of the launching chains of the steamship the Great Eastern symbolise the scale of Brunel’s ambition and the weight of the crushing responsibilities that hastened his early death.
- Cooper, John, Great Britons: The Great Debate, 2002, p. 101 Read entry
The photograph of Brunel standing in front of the chains of the SS Great Eastern captures the spirit and modernity of Victorian engineering. The photograph was taken as the basis for an engraving to celebrate the launch of the steamship in the Illustrated Times. Howlett's series of images illustrates the power of the medium to evoke a personality and a place in time. The series also demonstrates the power of picture editing, for amongst all the shots taken by Howlett there is only one photograph with the power to have fixed Brunel - with his hat, cigar, fob-watch and dirty boots - in the public's mind.
- Funnell, Peter, Victorian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 19
- Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 23 Read entry
The son of the engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) gained early experience working on his father’s Thames Tunnel in London. He went on to design the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol and to build not only the Great Western Railway, in England, but also railways in Italy, India and Australia. He is also remembered as a designer of ocean-going steamships, the last and the greatest of which was the Great Eastern, whose massive anchor chains provide the backdrop in this photograph. Taken to celebrate the launch of the steamship, this photograph demonstrates the importance of the picture-selection process. Of several images taken by Howlett that day, this was the only one with the power to fix Brunel in the public’s mind.
- Hart-Davis, Adam, Chain Reactions, 2000, p. 157
- John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 68
- Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 217
- Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 18
- Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 47 Read entry
The only son of the engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, Brunel gained his earliest experience as an engineer working on his father's Thames Tunnel, where he showed his ability to work impossibly long hours, and in several emergencies, his sheer courage. He was the designer of the Clifton suspension bridge, and built railways in Italy, Australia and India, as well as at home, where the Great Western Railway is his most celebrated creation. But his greatest fame came as a designer of ocean-going steamships, of which the Leviathan or Great Eastern, as it came to be known, was the last and greatest. It was five times the size of any other ship, and in both design and construction revolutionary.
The photographer, Howlett, and his partner Joseph Cundall, were commissioned to take a series of photographs of this prodigious vessel by The Illustrated Times, a popular rival to The Illustrated London News, and a special number devoted to the Leviathan was published on 16 January 1858. Howlett portrays Brunel standing, casual and confident, in front of the ship's massive anchor chains, the symbols of the power he had created. Little is known of Howlett whom The Illustrated Times rightly called 'one of the most skilful photographers of the day'. He died less than a year after this photograph was taken, poisoned, it was suggested, by his own photographic chemicals.
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 128
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 128 Read entry
This is a highly effective and memorable image of a great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was responsible for the design of one of the most important Victorian steamships, the Great Eastern. Here he is photographed standing nonchalantly in front of the ship's monumental launching chains, his hands in his pockets, a cigar in his mouth and his waistcoat askew, conveying the impression of swaggering casualness about his achivements, just before the ship was launched in November 1857. The photograph was taken by Robert Howlett for a series of engravings published to commemorate the launch in the Illustrated Times.
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 84
- Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 143 Read entry
This photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel by Robert Howlett (d.1858) has become an enduring image of Victorian engineering might. It is among a series that shows Brunel at one of the attempted launches of the ‘Leviathan’, the SS Great Eastern, in November and December 1857 at the shipyard where it was built on London’s Isle of Dogs. This was the last of the great ocean-going ships that Brunel designed, and the most ambitious: at 32,000 tons displacement, she was by far the largest ship of her time. She came towards the culmination of a career that had made Brunel the most famous civil engineer of his generation and had seen him design, among many other enterprises, the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol and create the Great Western Railway.
Six photographs are recorded: three single portraits of Brunel and three showing him with other men. This image is the most successful and shows how, in adjusting the angle to show Brunel four-square in front of the massive chains used to control the launch of the ship, Howlett was able to make such a powerful portrait. The photographs formed the basis of engravings published in the Illustrated Times the following year, in a feature on the SS Great Eastern.
Subjects & Themesback to top
Events of 1857back to top
Current affairsPalmerston passes the Matrimonial Causes Act in the face of parliamentary opposition. The act establishes divorce courts, although women, unlike men, are not allowed to sue for divorce on the grounds of adultery.
The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition is held, a follow-up to the Great Exhibition of 1851, although highlighting Britain's private art collections rather than industry and technology. More than 1.3 million people visit the event.
Art and scienceElizabeth Gaskell publishes The Life of Charlotte Brontë, a year after the author's death. The controversial biography consolidates the myth of the Brontë sisters as isolated geniuses living in remote Yorkshire.
Illustrator George Scharf becomes the first Secretary of the National Portrait Gallery, overseeing the collection's growth and its several moves around London before a permanent home is established in 1896, the year after Scharf's death.
InternationalThe Indian Revolt was a significant rebellion against the rule of the East Indian Company and a culmination of decades of discontent about British rule. After a year of horrific violence on both sides, the revolt was suppressed. It led to a more involved role by the British government in India, taking over responsibility from the East India Company.
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