The J. Paul Getty Museum

I.K. Brunel and Others Observing the "Great Eastern" Launch Attempt

Object Details


I.K. Brunel and Others Observing the "Great Eastern" Launch Attempt


Robert Howlett (British, 1831 - 1858)




London, England (Place Created)


November 1857


Albumen silver print

Object Number:



24.8 × 21.4 cm (9 3/4 × 8 7/16 in.)

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Object Description

His "great babe" is how engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel referred to his creation, the Great Eastern. At nearly twenty-two thousand tons, it was the largest ship built in the nineteenth century. Robert Howlett had been commissioned by The Illustrated Times to document its building and launching. In this photograph Howlett swung his camera away from the enormous ship to record the human reaction to the anticipated spectacle. The image has the casual structure of an unposed snapshot. It was an illustration meant to accompany a newspaper account of the events. Looking nervously expectant, the men grouped around an imperious Brunel--the short man at the center front, facing right--on the dock were investors from the syndicate that had spent three million dollars for the ship's construction. Brunel did not want onlookers present, but the owners sold tickets and people came by the thousands. The Great Eastern stubbornly refused to be moved down the launching ramp, and steam winch handles spun wildly out of control, killing two crewmembers and threatening the spectators. Several more months of pushing and pulling ensued before Brunel's ship was successfully waterborne.

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  • Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at UCLA (Los Angeles), January 24 to April 2, 1995
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  • The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center (Los Angeles), February 4 to June 8, 2014