Photographing the 'Great Eastern'

Produced as part of Ocean Liners: Speed and Style

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Research Assistant Meredith More reveals the story behind Robert Howlett's iconic photographs of the 'Great Eastern', the famous steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 59) was a giant of Victorian engineering, famous for designing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Thames Tunnel, the Great Western Railway, and the Great Eastern – by far the biggest ship ever built when it was launched in 1859. An iconic photograph taken by Robert Howlett (1831 – 58) captured Brunel in the midst of his latest project, while the Great Eastern was under construction at John Scott Russell's shipyard at the Isle of Dogs, London. Immortalised in his stove-pipe hat in front of the ship's enormous launching chains, Brunel's confident stance and mud-splattered trousers portray him as a man of action, a hero at the forefront of the industrial age.

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Launching Chains of the Great Eastern, by Robert Howlett, 1857, England, albumen print from wet collodion on glass negative. Museum no. PH.246-1979. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Robert Howlett was also something of a pioneer, being one of the first men in the 1850s to make a living from the new art of photography. A partner at the Photography Institution on Bond Street and a regular exhibitor at the Photographic Society, his striking portrait of Brunel was one of the earliest examples of environmental portraiture – in which the subject is captured at home or at work. The portrait was one of a series of groundbreaking images by Howlett documenting the construction of the Great Eastern between 1854 and 1858.

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The Great Eastern: elevation from mid-Thames, by Robert Howlett, 1857, England, albumen print from collodion negative. Museum no. PH.248-1979. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The images were published by the Illustrated Times newspaper on 16 June 1858. Photojournalism was still an emerging medium at the time and so this type of commission would have been fairly unusual. However, a few years earlier the photographer Philip Henry Delamotte had been commissioned to record the reconstruction of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill. Delamotte's photographs, which captured the magnificence of this celebrated Victorian structure, had increased the public's appetite for images of great modern feats of engineering.

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Left to right: Portrait of Robert Howlett, by Benjamin Brecknell Turner, 1850s, England, albumen print from a calotype negative. Museum no. E.2-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; The Great Nave of the Crystal Palace, by Philip Henry Delamotte, 1854, England, albumen print from collodion negative. Museum no. 39286. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Like the Crystal Palace, the Great Eastern caused a public sensation. Designed specifically for the route to India and Australia, the ship could carry enough coal to complete the 22,000 mile trip to Ceylon without refuelling – reducing the journey time to only 30 days. At 210 metres, it was over twice the length of its largest predecessors, the Scotia and the Great Britain, and around five times the weight. It was the largest man-made object ever built at the time.

Brunel loved a design challenge. To propel a ship of such colossal size, three distinct methods of propulsion were required: screw propellers, paddle wheels and sails. Equipped with the latest technology, including mechanical telegraphs and semaphores for messaging, the Great Eastern also had an innovative double hull made from iron (ships had previously used wood) that would protect the ship from damage.

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The Great Eastern: View of the Hull, by Robert Howlett, 1857, England, albumen print from wet collodion negative. Museum no. PH.255-1979. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

But Howlett's photographs do more than simply document the ship's construction. He purposely chose angles that emphasised the ship's unprecedented scale by incorporating human figures or smaller boats – carefully framed against the ship's giant paddle wheels and looming hull – to convey a sense of awe and spectacle. Some are also tinted gold, to reference the qualities of iron.

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The Great Eastern, Bow-on-View, by Robert Howlett, 1857, England, albumen print from wet collodion negative. Museum no. PH.250-1979. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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Group beside the stern of the Great Eastern, by Robert Howlett, 1857, England, albumen print from wet collodion negative. Museum no. PH.260-1979. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The photographs were taken on a very large sliding box camera using the wet-plate collodion process – a complex technique invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. It created highly detailed images that could be easily reproduced, and also reduced exposure times. Despite these advances, the process required to develop each photograph was laborious. Immediate developing and fixing were necessary, so Howlett would have spent his days at the Isle of Dogs rushing between his camera and the darkroom tent. In his spare time, Howlett marketed portable dark room tents of his own design – he may have used one himself for this commission.

As a series, the photographs portray a productive and efficient construction site, bustling with workers and activity. In reality, the project was plagued by delays, financial difficulty, and even disaster: during the first launch attempt, a man's life was lost when the winch controlling the launching chains spun out of control. Five more men were killed in an explosion during the ship's maiden voyage in 1858. Howlett's images played a crucial role in disseminating a positive image of the beleaguered project.

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The Great Eastern under Construction, by Robert Howlett, 1857, England, albumen print from wet collodion negative. Museum no. PH.258-1979. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Howlett never profitted from the success of the images. He died in December 1858, reportedly from a fever, though it's possible that exposure to the poisonous chemicals used in collodion photography was the real cause. The ship itself didn't fare much better. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the long route to the Far East that the Great Eastern had been designed for became redundant. This, on top of considerable financial pressures, meant that the ship never sailed to India or Australia, and was instead used for a short time on the more lucrative transatlantic route to America. The ship proved to be under-powered for its size, however, and could not compete with smaller and faster ships, struggling to attract passengers. A commercial disaster, the Great Eastern later found its calling as a cable layer and, rather tragically, ended its days as a fairground and advertising hoarding, before being sold for scrap in 1888.

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The Great Eastern, by Robert Howlett, 1857, England, albumen print from collodion negative. Museum no. PH.247-1979. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Though the Great Eastern failed to fulfil Brunel's ambitions, in many ways it served as the blueprint for the great ocean liners of the 20th century. From its novel iron construction and double hull to its enormous proportions, nothing like it was seen again for four decades, until the launch of the great Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania (1907). Howlett's photographs, particularly his enigmatic portrait of Brunel, provide an enduring and triumphant record of this great Victorian engineer, while securing his own reputation as a pioneer of photography.

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The Great Eastern: Wheel and Chain Drum, by Robert Howlett, 1857, England, albumen print from collodion negative. Museum no. PH.259-1979. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Find out more about photographic processes in our A to Z guide.