Defining Documentary – Robert Howlett

In the course notes there is a mention of an iconic image of Isambard Kingdom Brunel by Robert Howlett. Although I though I knew the image I never knew the photographer so thought I would do a little light reading…

Portrait of Robert Howlett – Turner,Benjamin Brecknell 1815-1894

Apparently, Robert Howlett was one of the first photographers to make a successful living from the relatively new “art” of photography. Prior to the early 1850’s the majority of photographers were considered amateurs who progressed to photography from either the sciences or painting. In 1856 Howlett began to exhibit his work at the Photographic Society in London, joining the Photographic Institution established by Joseph Cundall- a photographer and publisher- also one of the founding members of what would be known as the Royal Photographic Society. In about 1855 Cundall and Howlett went into partnership establishing a commercial photography studio in London.

A bit of an entrepreneur, Howlett  also designed and sold portable darkroom tents, writing a booklet called On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation. 

Howlett was commissioned by the painter William Powell Frith, and Prince Albert, who wished  him to photograph frescoes at Buckingham Palace. He also received a royal commission to copy the works of Raphael.

Howlett and Cundall were commissioned also by Queen Victoria to photograph soldiers returning from the Crimean War, a war that was notorious for some of the worst military and logistical incompetence in the history of the British Army. More of a traditionalist, Cundall took studio portraits whilst Robert Howlett travelled to the naval dockyards and the veteran’s hospital at Woolwich experimenting with “environmental portraiture.”

One could speculate that at this point Robert Howlett grasped the potential for photography to influence a large audience, “catching… the imagination of the rich and powerful, and of the public at large.”   One of his best known bodies of work would probably be a commission, in 1857, on behalf of the Illustrated Times newspaper, for Cundall and Howlett to document the construction of the steamship The Great Eastern. …who said documentary photographs weren’t commissioned?

Understanding the power of good PR and what  photography could achieve Brunel agreed to the Times’ photo session – his partner had gone bankrupt and was almost there himself and he hoped to attract new investors.Over a number days Robert photographed Brunel in a variety of poses:

We can see how Howlett fine tuned the pose in front of the chains on one of the Great Eastern’s launching drums. In the first version Brunel is semi seated, his short legs foreshortened. In the second he appears inappropriately nonchalant, Then in the final, iconic image Brunel is quietly confident and master of all he surveys. Howlett had tightened the crop, the background nothing more than those massive black chains.

Sadly it didn’t end on a happy note for any of the main characters concerned; the Great Eastern became stuck in its dry moorings and took several more tries to get it waterborne at its launch, on September 5th, 1859, on the eve of its first sailing, Brunel suffered what proved to later be a fatal stroke when four days later, a heater abroad the ship exploded, killing six people. The tragic news is said to have hastened Brunel’s death ten days later on September 15th. SS Great Eastern never became a passenger ship instead she was used as a cable-laying vessel. Even sadder than that Howlett died nearly 12 months earlier at the age of 27. Although his death certificate says he died of a fever many now question his photographic practices and blame the constant overexposure to photographic chemicals.


Collections, A. (2016) Portrait of Robert Howlett | Turner, Benjamin Brecknell | V&A search the collections. Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
In-line Citation:
(Collections, 2016)

Robert Howlett (British, 1831 – 1858) (Getty museum) (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
In-line Citation:
(Robert Howlett (British, 1831 – 1858) (Getty museum), no date)

Gallery, N.P. (2016) Isambard kingdom Brunel – national portrait gallery. Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
In-line Citation:
(Gallery, 2016)

White, D. (no date) The light shone and was spent: Robert Howlett and the power of photography. Available at: (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
In-line Citation:
(White, no date)