If you had a photography book, chances are that you have seen the pictures above — those of Isambard Kingdom Brunel by Robert Howett. They are considered to be one of the first and finest examples of environmental portraiture.
In 1857, The Illustrated Times commissioned Howlett and his partner Joseph Cundall to document the construction of Brunel’s the SS Great Eastern. The ship, then named The Leviathan, was to be the largest vessel ever built, but it was in deep financial trouble. Brunel’s partner had gone bankrupt and the great engineer himself was close to bankruptcy himself.
But he knew the power of photography. Brunel had previously made daguerreotypes of his engineering drawings and sent them to prospective railway builders across Europe. Brunel was also using photos as contractual and management tools at the dockside of Great Eastern. And for now, good public relations’ sake and to promote his ship to potential investors, Brunel had agreed to the Times’ photo session.
The result was a series of photos printed and sold to great acclaim by London Stereoscopic Company, one of the earliest photo-studios and society photographers. Howett’s photos were greatly different from those of more factual Cundall. Howett photographed Brunel with two cameras, one of them stereographic. For Brunel’s own portrait in front of the chains on one of the Great Eastern’s launching drums, he took three versions over a number of days.
It was all downhill from here on. When it was time to launch the ship, it was stuck in its dry moorings and took several more tries to get it waterborne. On September 5th, 1859, while surveying the vessel on the eve of its first sailing, Brunel suffered a stroke. Four days later, a heater abroad the ship exploded, and six people were scalded to death. The news of this disaster hastened Brunel’s death on September 15th. He did not live to see her maiden voyage completed. Instead of the world’s greatest passenger ship, as Brunel hoped, SS Great Eastern became a workaday cable-laying vessel. As for Howlett, he had been dead for nearly a year, allegedly from overexposure to photographic chemicals. He was just 27.