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Isambard Kingdom Brunel by Robert Howlett

Portsmouth Museum is currently exhibiting arguably the most famous photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel ever taken.

Portsmouth Museum is currently exhibiting arguably the most famous photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel ever taken.

The photograph, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, shows Brunel leaning against the massive chains used to control the launch of SS Great Britain (Leviathan). It was taken in 1857 by Robert Howlett and is today thought to be one of the first examples of early environmental portraiture. The image of Brunel in his stove-pipe hat and stacked heel boots is well known to the people of Portsmouth - the city in which he was born. It's not only a famously enduring showcase of Victorian might but also used in various locations around the city.


Isambard Kingdom Brunel (detail), by Robert Howlett, November 1857. Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London.

Robert Howlett was a pioneering British photographer, and was commissioned to capture Crimean Heroes by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. His skill was much celebrated, with the photographer being able to move out of the studio at a time when doing so was enormously complex. Howlett died at the age of just 27 due to typhoid - though in later years his cause of death was erroneously put down to over-exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The National Portrait Gallery has lent Portsmouth Museum the image of Brunel as part of its Coming Home project. This sees the gallery lend fifty portraits out to locations across the country, to showcase individuals in the location where they are today most closely associated. In addition to sending the Brunel photograph to Portsmouth, the National Portrait Gallery has lent works by or depicting Richard III, Tracey Emin and William Wilberforce out of London and to Leicester, Margate and Hull respectively. In total some 50 artworks have been temporarily moved out of the capital to locations across the UK.

The photograph will be on display until 23 June. Check our social media feeds for updates, as well as events being planned to celebrate the photograph being displayed in Portsmouth.

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Portsmouth Museum

In the ‘Story of Portsmouth’ you can discover how life at home has changed over the centuries, with reconstructions of a 17th century bedchamber, an 1871 dockyard worker’s kitchen, a Victorian parlour, a 1930s kitchen and a 1950s living room.

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