Robert Howlett (1831-1858)



Robert Howlett by Benjamin Brecknell Turner ©Victoria and Albert Museum


“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”   – Lao Tzu


Robert Howlett was a pioneering Victorian photographer, remembered for his revolutionary portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel against the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern.


Robert Howlett was born on 3rd July 1831, son of Reverend Robert Howlett (1797-1883) and Harriet Howlett née Harsant (1799-1871), and elder brother to Thomas Howlett (1833-1899).  

In his tragically short life he condensed a lifetime’s professional career into only four years, becoming an early photojournalist, portrait artist and a scientist devoted to this revolutionary new visual medium. He was an early member of the Photographic Society, now the Royal Photographic Society, elected in 1855 and contributing to their exhibitions from 1856 – 1859. 

Howlett displayed a multitude of diverse skills, demonstrated in full and stereoscopic formats, from his Constable style landscape In the Valley of the Mole in 1855 to the stark industrial views of I K Brunel’s SS Great Eastern in 1857.  Howlett usually worked on location, documenting rapid change unfolding in the late 1850s.

Howlett was a partner in the Photographic Institution, 168 New Bond Street, and took part in the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, the largest art exhibition in UK history, assisted Prince Albert in documenting works of art in the Royal Collection, produced portraits of “Crimean Heroes” including wounded soldiers for Queen Victoria, printed some of the earliest pictures of the moon and created a new adaptation of narrative portraiture.  

Royal Academy artist William Powell Frith requested his help in providing photographic views of Epsom racecourse for The Derby Day, now on display at Tate Britain.  Also in 1856 Howlett produced a publication addressing concerns about print deterioration in On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures Upon Paper with Suggestions for their Preservation.

Howlett experimented with instantaneous photography to capture movement, which contributed to his production of photographs with a 21st century documentary feel.  Within one year he photographed the largest ship built to that date and experimented with combining camera with microscope to capture the minute detail of an insect.

Many memorable images were featured in the 1858 Illustrated Times 24 page special “Leviathan Number” devoted to the construction and launch of the SS Great Eastern, or Leviathan as it was temporarily renamed.  He was subsequently commissioned by I K Brunel to document the later stages of construction at the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash.   Howlett’s close friend Thomas Frederick Hardwich recalled that “He was so full of enthusiasm and excitement, that, as a companion observes, he appeared to be running here there and everywhere, and doing in one day as much as most men would accomplish in two or three”.  In July 1858 Howlett noted that he had very little spare time, a painful irony four months prior to his death.

Howlett’s final months included a visit to the French city of Rouen to photograph its Flamboyant Gothic architecture using a new orthographic lens.  Later, he collaborated with astronomer Warren De la Rue in the production of ground breaking stereoscopic images showing the moon in three dimensions.  These were displayed on 12th November 1858.  

De la Rue had been assisted by Howlett the previous year in production of positive lunar images from collodion negatives, created using an adapted telescope.  November 1857 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society reported Howlett’s assistance to De la Rue, “making negative collodion very sensitive” to enable a negative image in ten seconds.

Robert Howlett died on 2nd December 1858 after a twenty day fever attributed to typhoid, at the age of 27, and was buried at his father’s church of St Peter and St Paul, Wendling, Norfolk on 7th December.  Two weeks later his “fellow labourer” Thomas Frederick Hardwich wrote a long, sincere obituary in The Photographic Journal, deeply lamenting the unexpected passing of his close friend.

Several Howlett photographs were exhibited posthumously between 1859 and 1865.  His work can be seen in the UK in the Royal Collection, Brunel Museum, National Science and Media Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Portrait Gallery, National Army Museum and Brunel Institute.  

Howlett’s Great Eastern images were featured in the first episode of BBC Four, Britain in Focus in 2017.  Details of the crowdfunded project to restore Robert Howlett’s grave are here.

A full biography is in preparation and catalogue of work actively maintained. 

Further reading about Howlett’s photography of Saltash Bridge RPS_THE COLLECTION_V3

Further reading about Howlett’s collaboration with Warren De la Rue in moon photography: //

Further reading about Warren De la Rue’s moon photography

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (1857): 10.1093/mnras/18.1.16

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (1858): 10.1093/mnras/19.1.40

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (1862): 10.1093/mnras/22.4.131

Correspondence with William Henry Fox Talbot


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©Rose Teanby     Gallery of SS Great Eastern photographs by Robert Howlett displayed at the Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe, London



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