Iconic photo of Brunel voted the public’s favourite acquisition of the year

  • Published 16 December 2019

Photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing in front of the launching chains of SS Great Eastern, 1857, by Robert Howlett, has been voted the public’s favourite Art Fund work of the year.

Robert Howlett, Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing in front of the launching chains of SS Great Eastern, 1857

Robert Howlett, Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing in front of the launching chains of SS Great Eastern, 1857

Acquired by the Brunel Museum in 2019 with Art Fund support, the photograph is both a defining image of Brunel and a reminder of the ambition and might of Victorian engineering.

Taken in London in 1857, it depicts Brunel standing in front of the luxury steamship he designed – his last project – before its maiden voyage.

It was to become one of the most important images not just of Brunel, but of the era.

Howlett, considered one of the most skilful photographers of his time, was commissioned by the Illustrated Times to document the construction of the ship.

The SS Great Eastern was an audacious project; at the time of its launch it was the largest ship in the world. However, no dock or harbour was big enough to cope with its size, and it never became the passenger ship it was intended to be.

Voters in the annual poll were invited to choose from a shortlist of 10 works of art and objects that Art Fund has helped UK museums and galleries to acquire over the past year. The list ranged from Dorothea Tanning’s Surrealist painting Tableau Vivant (1954) to John Akomfrah’s multimedia work Mimesis: African Soldier (2018), Carlo Dolci’s devotional picture St Agatha (c1665-70) to an early work by JMW Turner, Walton Bridges (1806).

The Brunel Museum’s chair-elect, and eminent engineer, Dana Skelley OBE, says: 'We are thrilled that this timeless 1857 print of Isambard Kingdom Brunel has won the public vote. For us, it captures so much about the remarkable man that our museum in Rotherhithe celebrates, located at the site of the world’s first tunnel under a river (1843) where he started his career under the direction of his father Sir Marc Brunel. This powerful image also has immense historic value, as it was taken by Robert Howlett, an early pioneer of photo journalism.'

All those who voted were entered into a free prize draw to win a National Art Pass.

Previous winners of Art Fund work of the year include an Anglo-Saxon pendant (the ‘Winfarthing Pendant’) acquired by Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery in 2018, The Monarch of the Glen (c1851) by Edwin Landseer, acquired by National Galleries Scotland in 2017, and the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I (1588), acquired by Royal Museums Greenwich in 2016.