Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, by Robert Howlett, and  George Downes, November 1857 - NPG P1979 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

by Robert Howlett, and George Downes
albumen stereoscopic card, November 1857
7 1/8 in. x 6 3/4 in. (182 mm x 172 mm) overall
Purchased, 2014
Primary Collection
NPG P1979

Sitterback to top

Artistsback to top

  • George Downes (circa 1822-1879), Photographer. Artist associated with 1 portrait.
  • Robert Howlett (1831-1858), Photographer. Artist associated with 13 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Brunel is shown seated in front of the gigantic launching chains of the Great Eastern on the banks of the river Thames. The ship's first attempted launch in November 1857 attracted thousands of paying spectators. Howlett and Cundall were commissioned by The Illustrated Times to take a series of photographs of its construction, which also included views of the gigantic hull surrounded by scaffolding and of the deck peopled with foremen and labourers. The resulting images were reproduced as engravings in a special edition published on 16 January 1858, and were also widely circulated as cartes-de-visite and stereoscopic cards. They serve as fine examples of environmental portraiture at a time when portraits taken outside the studio context were extremely challenging technically, and have become some of the most enduring and iconic images of the age. Watch a Digital interpretation of the original stereoscopic card here.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG P112: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (variant version)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Photographs, 2018, p. 22

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.


The Indian Mutiny takes place following the insensitive response of the British army to complaints by Muslim and Hindu sepoys about using animal grease on their gun cartridges, which results in a horrific and violent uprising. The event precipitated a more involved role by the British government in India, taking over responsibility from the East India company.

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