Robert Howlett (1830-58)
'The Great Eastern'
Museum no. Ph.259-1979
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Howlett produced portraits of Crimean War heroes, genre scenes and landscapes. His major work, however, was to document the construction of the massive steamship the Great Eastern, known early on as SS Leviathan. The images he took as part of this series were translated into engravings for The Illustrated Times in 1858. They reflected and stimulated the widespread interest in this feat of engineering. When the Great Eastern was launched she was the largest ship in the world. She became a symbol of the greatness of the British Empire but she was in fact a commercial failure and was scrapped in 1888. Howlett also produced the well-known portrait of the Great Eastern's creator and engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, standing in front of the ship's chains, which is perhaps one of the first examples of environmental portraiture.