Robert Howlett by Benjamin Brecknell Turner ©Victoria and Albert Museum



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


(3rd July 1831 – 2nd December 1858)

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.


In his tragically short life he condensed a lifetime’s professional career into only four years, becoming a photojournalist, portrait artist and a scientist devoted to mastering this new artistic medium. He was an early member of the Photographic Society, now the Royal Photographic Society, contributing to their exhibitions between 1856 and 1859.  Most photographers specialised in one or two areas but Howlett displayed a multitude of diverse skills, demonstrated in full and stereoscopic formats and usually on location.  His images spanned a century of industrial revolution in only two years 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.  Unlike many contemporaries, Howlett usually worked on location, documenting the 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 the first professional narrative portrait using photography.  He is credited with the first photograph taken at the Epsom Derby, first photograph to be used in an engineering textbook and the first use of engraved photographs to extensively illustrate a newspaper special edition.

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 moveable object on Earth and experimented with photo microscopy, combining camera with microscope to capture the minute detail of an insect.

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.  In 1856 he produced a publication addressing concerns about print deterioration in “On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures Upon Paper with Suggestions for their Preservation”.

Many memorable images were featured in the 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, produced on 16th January 1858.  He was subsequently commissioned by I K Brunel to document the later stages of construction at the Royal Albert Bridge, Saltash.   Despite his friend Thomas Frederick Hardwich’s observation 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 3D.  These were displayed on 12th November 1858, he died 20 days later.

Robert Howlett’s death certificate indicates his cause of death as typhoid fever at the age of 27, one year after taking his portrait of Brunel, and was buried at his father’s church of St Peter and St Paul, Wendling, Norfolk.  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 photographs were exhibited posthumously between 1859 and 1865.  His work can be seen in the UK in the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Collection, Brunel Museum, National Media Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, National Army Museum and Brunel Institute.

Howlett’s Great Eastern images were featured in the first episode of BBC Four, Britain in Focus.

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

A full biography and catalogue of work is in preparation.