Great Eastern, View of the Bow © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This was one of the first in Robert Howlett’s series of SS Great Eastern photographs, taken on 2nd November 1857. The image above was the day before the official sideways launch of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s creation, said to be the largest moveable object on Earth at the time. Last minute preparations are captured as the enormous ship converts all other objects into Lillipution proportions.
The high vantage point in the Napier shipyard was only possible from a viewing platform from which Howlett took several photographs charting her painfully slow progress along the specially designed slipways. The heavy camera equipment and portable darkroom would need to be carried to a height of approximately 30 feet from ground level to be at the mid point between keel and deck which measured 58 feet.
The following day the ship was christened “Leviathan”, an unfortunate act for two reasons. “Leviathan” was a colossal mythical sea monster, beyond human control, which is exactly what she became at her first attempted launch, moving only four feet towards the Thames. According to old sailor’s superstition a ship should never be renamed or bad luck will befall its passengers and crew.
This gigantic vessel took a further three months of herculean effort before finally floating on the high tide of 31st January 1858. Howlett photographed her from start to finish, throughout the coldest months of the year, and nine of the photographs were engraved to provide prints for a special edition of the “Illustrated Times” on 16th January 1858. One of the photographs from this series became the iconic image of Brunel in front of the massive launching chains used to restrain her from an uncontrolled slide into the water.