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Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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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 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.

Placesback to top

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 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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