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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

by Robert Howlett
albumen print, November 1857
10 5/8 x 8 1/2 in. (270 x 216 mm)
Purchased, 1997
Primary Collection
NPG P662

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Robert Howlett (1831-1858), Photographer. Artist associated with 13 portraits.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG P112: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (variant version)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Photographs, 2018, p. 22 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 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, 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.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 84

Events of 1857back to top

Current affairs

Palmerston 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 science

Elizabeth 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.

International

The 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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