Albumen print of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1808-1859)

Item author: Taken by Robert Howlett (1831-1858)
Item date: 1857
Grant Value: £5,000
Item cost: £40,000
Item date acquired: 2019
Item institution: Brunel Museum
Town/City: London
London borough: LB Southwark

This image of Brunel, in front of the giant chains used to control the launch of the massive SS Great Eastern, was to become one of the most important photographic images of the era, and of Brunel himself - one of the towering geniuses of the Victorian age.

At the time of this photograph, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of the most celebrated men of his age, known for landmark engineering projects such as the Great Western Railway, numerous bridges, tunnels, stations and dockyards, and ground-breaking steamships. 

In the 1830s he invested in the Great Western Steamship Company and set about designing better and faster ships to cross the Atlantic. His first was a paddle steamer, the Great Western. Next came the SS Great Britain, then his third and final ship, the monumental SS Great Eastern, his most audacious project to date.

SS Great Eastern was an iron sailing steamship, designed by Brunel and built by J. Scott Russell & Co. at Millwall Iron Works on the River Thames. She was by far the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers from England to Australia and back without refuelling. The ship's five funnels were rare. These were later reduced to four. To power this ‘leviathan’ ship, Brunel used two huge paddle wheels attached to one engine and a screw-propeller attached to a second engine.

This was not, however, Brunel’s most successful project.  She was so large that launching her into the Thames proved most problematic. There were several unsuccessful launch attempts before she finally floated on 31 January 1858. Construction proved far more expensive than originally planned. Sea trials were planned for 7 September 1859 but disaster struck. In a rush to get the ship ready, two temporary stopcocks fitted to heaters on the ship's funnels were accidentally left on. This resulted in a funnel exploding, causing the deaths of five people. Brunel had been ill for some time and it is believed that his health worsened when he heard about this explosion. He died soon after, on 15 September 1859 at the age of 53. After repairs, SS Great Eastern plied for several years as a passenger liner between Britain and North America before being converted to a cable-laying ship and laying the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. Finishing her life as a floating music hall and advertising hoarding (for the famous department store Lewis's) in Liverpool, she was broken up on Merseyside in 1889.

The Brunel dynasty is of immeasurable importance to the nation and sits at the very heart of Victorian economic innovation: the Brunels' forward thinking, imaginative and socially responsible approach to development set the foundations for over a century of economic growth in this country.

Howlett's iconic portrait of Brunel.
Howlett's iconic portrait of Brunel. Courtesy of the Brunel Museum.