This albumen print of this iconic mid-Victorian photograph is one of around only 12 originals still in existence.

The picture was taken by the young photographer Robert Howlett at Millwall in 1857. It is part of a series commissioned from Howlett to document the building of the SS Great Eastern, the vast steamship designed by the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59).

Brunel, son of Marc Isambard Brunel, was the most celebrated engineer of the age, already known by this date for his landmark projects including the Great Western Railway, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the SS Great Western paddle steamer. The SS Great Eastern was his final project prior to his death in 1859.

Howlett is regarded today as a pioneer of photojournalism, admired particularly for his cropped compositions which create drama and dynamism. This skill is clearly demonstrated in the portrait of Brunel standing in front of the gigantic chains designed to secure the Great Eastern to its launch site.

The picture was taken using a heavy camera that produced 11 × 8in glass negatives. The plate had to be coated with chemicals, the picture taken, and the negative developed while the chemicals were still wet – an entire process which had to be completed within 10 minutes, thus requiring an on-site darkroom.

The Brunel Museum, located in the Engine House of the Thames Tunnel, a project designed by Marc Brunel and overseen by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, exists to celebrate and explore the Brunel family and its work. The provenance of this photograph is therefore a key aspect of its interest to the museum. It is traceable by descent via Henry Marc Brunel, second son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, suggesting a strong possibility that it may once have belonged to the sitter – and might even have been a gift from the photographer himself.


By descent.

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