Icons of England
  • Introduction
  • The Icons
  • Nominations
  • News
  • Learn & Play
  • Your Comments

Portrait of Brunel by Robert Howlett

1056 of 1170 nominations


Portrait of Brunel by Robert Howlett

Is this an icon?


Portrait of Brunel by Robert Howlett

This is Robert Howlett's portrait: “Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern”, 1857. This very famous photograph shows a renowned man and his greatest creation. But not many people know the tragic stories behind the image…

It was taken to celebrate the launch of the Great Eastern, the world’s largest steamship, in November 1857. Brunel is pictured standing proudly in front of the massive launch chains of the ship itself. As the bottle of champagne was smashed, in front of an excited crowd of more than 10,000 people, the multiplying winch that was supposed to regulate the launch spun out of control, killing one workman outright and injuring four others. The ship only moved three feet that day and it took more than two months to finally get her into the water.

John Scott Russell’s shipyard at Millwall is the location of the photograph. The cost of building the Great Eastern and all the problems that went with it bankrupted Russell and the yard went out of business. Robert Howlett, the promising photographer who took this extraordinary portrait, was to die the following year at just 27 years old. It is thought that he was poisoned by the chemicals he used for the developing processes.

Image: Topfoto.co.uk


Your comments

This portrait exemplifies the great engineering heritage of England. Brunel stands next to his most ambitious project, the largest iron ship ever built up to that time, looking relaxed, determined and supremely confident. A symbolic image of England in the Victorian age.

Paul Hemmings

Is it really true that the Politically Correct people have had the cigar removed from this portrait in some school books?
Peter Fleming



I nominate the red pillar box.

Donna Spencer