Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1857 (printed c. 1860)
A carte de visite portrait of the great civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), seen here in work-soiled clothes beside the chains on the ramp at Millwall Shipyard down which the Leviathan, then the largest steamship in the world, would soon be launched.
Brunel had already built several large railroad stations and suspension bridges, as well as the steamships Great Western (1838) and Great Britain (1845). The social reformer Samuel Smiles described him as ‘the very Napoleon of engineers, thinking more of glory than of profit, and of victory than of dividends.’
Photographed by Robert Howlett although the back of the mount carries a backplate crediting the London Stereoscopic Company, who presumably acquired the negative when Howlett died the year after the photograph was taken.
Robert Howlett (1831-1858) was one of the first professional photographers in London. He distributed a darkroom tent that he had designed and was the author of the publication On the Various Methods of Printing Photographica Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation (1856). His premature death at the age of twenty-seven is attributed to the toxic gases to which he was exposed during his photographic experiments.
In more than a dozen photographs, taken in 1857, Howlett recorded the construction of the Leviathan, later renamed The Great Eastern. His general views recorded the ship’s skeleton, its components, and the men who worked on them but the photograph that is best remembered today is his iconic portrait of Brunel, the man who designed and built the ship.
Condition: the print is in excellent condition, with good tonal range; the mount presents some abrasions verso along its lower edge but is otherwise crisp and clean. A facsimile of the sitter’s signature is printed recto in the lower margin.
Dimensions: the mount measures 3.9” by 2.25” (10 cm by 5.7 cm).