Robert Howlett

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1857/1985
Photogravure from original albumen print
Edition of 300 produced as part of “The Golden Age of British Photography” portfolio [Aperture Foundation, with the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art]
10 x 12 inches
Retail framed: $500
Courtesy Caryl Baron

Robert Howlett (1831-1858), a partner at the Photographic Institution, a leading professional studio in London, was commissioned by the Illustrated London Times to document the construction of the ship, Great Eastern (four years in the making, 692 feet in length and weighing 22.500 tons, it was six times the tonnage of any ship yet built and was to be propelled by all the technology then available – screw, paddle, and sail). Howlett photographed the ship's designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), at the time of the launching. More than anyone else of his generation, Brunel had been responsible for the transformation wrought upon Britain by the Industrial Revolution, building railways, terminals, tunnels, dry docks, piers, and bridges.

Robert Howlett died soon after making this photograph at the age of 27. Some think that he was killed by the chemicals used in the wet collodion process, which Howlett adopted soon after its invention. Exposing plates under a hood with arsenic and mercury fumes present was probably not good for anyone’s health. But his death certificate states that he died of fever.

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