SEND Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s big day

Learning objectives

  1. Discover some of the reasons why Isambard Kingdom Brunel is significant.
  1. Discover how portraits can reveal useful information about people and the past.
  1. Discover some of the ways life in the past was different to today through portraits.
  • View larger image
    Isambard Kingdom Brunel,    by Robert Howlett,    November 1857,    NPG P112,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
by Robert Howlett
albumen print, November 1857
11 1/4 in. x 8 7/8 in. (286 mm x 225 mm)
NPG P112
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Have you ever travelled through a tunnel or over a railway bridge? Or crossed the ocean in a large ship?

This is a photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He was an engineer who is remembered for designing some of the most famous tunnels, railways and ships in the world. His designs helped people go further and faster than ever before, and changed the way we travel, forever.

This photograph of Brunel was taken over 150 years ago, in 1857. It was taken to mark one of the most important events of his life – the launch of his enormous ship, the Great Eastern, into the river Thames in London. Although you can’t see it, Brunel is standing right next to the ship, in the shipyard where it was built.

Look closer

What is this portrait trying to tell us about Brunel and this important day?

Look carefully at the portrait for a whole minute (you might like to use a timer). Remember to look around the edges, in all four corners and in the background).

  • View larger image
    Isambard Kingdom Brunel,    by Robert Howlett,    November 1857,    NPG P112,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, by Robert Howlett, November 1857
    • He’s wearing clothes that were popular for men to wear in the Victorian period Connected with the time 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria was queen of the United Kingdom. , when he lived: a stovepipe hat, a jacket, waistcoat, trousers, shirt, tie and shoes.
    • A cigar. Is he smoking it or chewing on it?
    • You can see the chain from his pocket watch (wristwatches weren’t invented until about ten years later) and the strap from the case he used to carry spare cigars.
    • Working clothes. They look quite crumpled. Did you spot the mud on his shoes and trousers?
    • He wants to show that he’s happy to help with some of the work that the ordinary shipyard workers had to do.
    • Some giant chains.
    • The chains are helping to hold the Great Eastern steady on dry land until Brunel is ready for the ship to be launched into the water.
    • It was much too big. Brunel would have looked tiny standing next to it.
    • At the time, the Great Eastern was the largest ship that had ever been built. It was designed to carry 4000 people.
    • Could it have carried everyone in your school?
    • The chains are huge and they fill the whole background of the photograph. 
    • Taking Brunel’s picture next to the chains was a clever way of showing how big the ship was.
    • He’s trying to show that he’s feeling relaxed and confident.
    • (He was actually feeling quite worried because the ship had cost a lot of money to build, and he needed it to be a success.)
    • He’s standing in front of the giant chains with his hands in his pockets, another way of trying to show he is feeling relaxed and confident.
  • You might see:

    • The enormous Great Eastern, towering above you and being held by huge chains.
    • The river Thames.
    • The ordinary workers who built the ship and who will help to launch it into the water.
    • Thousands of people who had come to watch the launch.
    • The photographer, Robert Howlett, who took this photo of Brunel. You might also see his camera. Photography was still a new invention at this time and his camera would have been huge compared to cameras and phones today.

    You might hear:

    • The noise of the crowd.
    • The clanking of chains and machinery.

This portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel was seen in newspapers across Britain and became very famous. To this day, when people talk about Brunel and his amazing designs, they think of him with a cigar in his mouth and wearing his waistcoat and stovepipe hat.

Try copying Brunel’s Pose To sit or stand in a particular position in order to have a portrait made. and Expression A look on a person's face that shows their thoughts or feelings. . Now try a pose and expression of your own.

  1. How would you pose to make yourself look relaxed and confident in a photo?
  1. What expression would be on your face?
  1. Would you look straight at the camera or somewhere else, like Brunel?

Explore more portraits of Brunel

Here are some more photographs taken on the same day. The stereoscopic (‘double’) photograph was used in a popular Victorian gadget called a stereoscopic viewer, which made the two pictures look like one 3D image.

  • View larger image
    Isambard Kingdom Brunel preparing the launch of 'The Great Eastern' (also includes possibly Ned Hepworth; possibly William Jacomb; Solomon Tredwell),    by Robert Howlett,    November 1857,    NPG P663,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Isambard Kingdom Brunel preparing the launch of 'The Great Eastern' (also includes possibly Ned Hepworth; possibly William Jacomb; Solomon Tredwell), by Robert Howlett, November 1857
  • View larger image
    Isambard Kingdom Brunel,    by Robert Howlett, and  George Downes,    November 1857,    NPG P1979,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, by Robert Howlett, and George Downes, November 1857

Explore more engineers and architects

Look at more portraits of engineers and architects.

  1. Can you find out what amazing structures or transport they’re famous for designing? (There are clues in some of the pictures.)
  1. What do you think their portraits say about them?

Next steps

Find out, think about and discuss...

  • What did the Great Eastern look like?
  • What happened at the launch of the Great Eastern? (It didn’t go too well …)
  • What else did Isambard Kingdom Brunel design?
  • What was life like for the ordinary workers who built the ships, railways, bridges, tunnels and other structures designed by Brunel?
  • Shipyards and building sites can be dangerous places. What might someone working in a shipyard or building a bridge or a tunnel wear today?

What other questions would you like to ask? Try using these question starters:

  • I wonder why…
  • I wonder what…
  • I wonder how…
  • I wonder who…
  • I wonder when…
  • I wonder if…

You could visit the National Portrait Gallery, other museums and galleries, watch videos or TV programmes, read books or search online to find out the answers.