Photo Histories
The Photographers' History of Photography

The first modern portrait ? Robert Howlett's photograph of Brunel taken in 1857. Photo taken at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London © David White.

The Light Shone and Was Spent: Robert Howlett and the Power of Photography

Within a year of producing one of the greatest portraits of the nineteenth century photographer Robert Howlett lay dying in his Kensington lodgings. Finding the history books wanting, David White argues it’s time to reassess the importance of the Victorian with the modern eye.

“He was so full of enthusiasm and excitement, that … he appeared to be running here and there and everywhere, and doing in one day as much as most men would accomplish in two or three.” The Journal of the Photographic Society, December 21st, 1858.

One barely needs to describe the most famous image of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the towering geniuses of the Victorian age. Just say “THAT photo of Brunel,” and in your mind’s eye there is Britain’s greatest engineer standing strong, hands in pockets, stovepipe hat atop his balding head; there is the cigar and the muddy trousers; and there are those chains, those enormous chains.

This is not to be a story about Brunel though, for there are many of them. This is the story of another pioneer, a visionary who embraced the technology of his day and who with his own hands built the tools and equipment with which to push the boundaries of his chosen profession.

This is the seldom told story of Robert Howlett, the photographic pioneer with the modern eye who in his short life came to understand what a powerful effect the still image can have on the public imagination.

Robert Howlett was born at Theberton, Suffolk on July 3rd 1831, the second of four sons to the Reverend Robert Howlett. Two sons died in infancy, Robert’s younger brother Thomas became a farmer.

By the time Robert was nine the family were in Norfolk where the Reverend Howlett had been appointed vicar of Longham. A clergyman’s salary would have provided for the family’s needs. Greater benefits may have come through Robert’s mother, Harriet, daughter of a surgeon called Thomas Harsant.

Harsant it appears was a child of the Enlightenment. With telescopes, microscopes, electrical machines, implements and instruments recorded in his will, we could imagine that it was through his maternal grandfather that young Robert inherited a love of science, and an enthusiasm for the technological marvels of the Victorian age.

As a boy Robert had built his own microscope, and, just eight years after Samuel Morse had tapped out the first telegraphic message in America, there appeared in Longham village “the posts and wires of an electric telegraph stretching across the fields from the chief farmer’s house to the (Howlett) parsonage.”

When Thomas Harsant died in 1852 he left £1000 each to his grandsons Robert and Thomas. To Robert he also left his “turning lathe and all the apparatus and tools belonging thereto.”

Furnished with the means to move to London, Robert wasted no time in leaving for a city buzzing with optimism and innovation following the Great Exhibition of 1851.

An extraordinary six million people had visited the international exhibition. For many it was their first contact with the techniques of photography, and such terms as photograph, positive and negative were explained for them in the exhibition catalogue. Interest in the new medium rocketed.

In London Howlett joined the Photographic Institution at 168 New Bond Street. The Institution had been established by Joseph Cundall (1818-95), a Norfolk-born publisher and photographer and one of the founding members of what would become the Royal Photographic Society.

The Norfolk connection may have helped, but what is certain is Robert had landed on his feet, for Cundall’s Photographic Institution was among the foremost photographic establishments in Britain; with impeccable connections it was active in studio portraiture, exhibitions and in photographic publications. Within two years Robert Howlett had had his work put on show and become Cundall’s business partner.

By 1856 Robert was flying. He was exhibiting at the Photographic Society and working on commissions from the painter William Powell Frith, and from Prince Albert, no less, who asked him to photograph the frescoes in the new drawing room at Buckingham Palace. He also received a royal commission to copy the works of Raphael.

Then there were the portraits of notable painters and the landscapes, and the stereographs. How he found the time to produce the booklet On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation that same year, we may never know.

Crimean Heroes and Trophies: an etching copied from photographs by Howlett and Cundall commissioned by Queen Victoria published on the cover of The Illustrated London News, April 12th 1856. The heroes carry Byzantine paintings looted from a church in Sebastopol.


Prestigious and well paid as Robert’s work must have been, he had probably not realised how photography could be used to alter public opinion. Perhaps it was his next assignment that did that.

Howlett and Cundall were commissioned by Queen Victoria to photograph soldiers returning from the Crimean War, a war that was showcasing some of the worst military and logistical incompetence of the British Army.

As expected Cundall shot studio portraits, but Robert Howlett took his huge camera down to the naval dockyards and the veteran’s hospital at Woolwich. Here are some of his first experiments in environmental portraiture. In the summer months of 1856 Cundall and Howlett set up a temporary studio in Aldershot where many of the troops had assembled on their return to England.

“These unsung heroes etched the Crimean War into British history with a brutal example of the futility of war, and a show of human endurance against all the odds,” iphotocentral once told us, adding for print collectors, “If other English Crimean War images are scarce, Cundall and Howlett’s photographs are very rare.”

Titled Crimean Heroes and Trophies and presented as an album and an exhibition, the commission was Queen Victoria’s response to reports in The Times of disaster in the region, and to the personal stories of suffering supported in part by the first ever photographs from a war zone then filtering back from the Black Sea. These would have included Roger Fenton’s Crimean images of 1855.

Cundall, it appears, shot the majority of the surviving Crimean portraits.

Nevertheless, it must have been when these photographs were being taken that Robert Howlett grasped the new medium’s extraordinary potential for influence; catching as it did the imagination of the rich and powerful, and of the public at large.

Howlett’s albumen prints of Brunel and the Great Eastern at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo © David White.


Always keen to try the latest advances in photography Robert Howlett had embraced the wet-plate collodion process invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. Combining printable negatives with fine definition, the system overcame the commercial disadvantages of the two seminal processes of photography: the soft painterliness of Fox Talbot’s Callotype and the unprintability of the Daguerreotype.

Image quality was impressive, but the collodion process was no easier to use than its predecessors, and could be a toxic nightmare.

Before embarking on an exposure the collodion photographer would coat one side of a glass plate with a sticky liquid of guncotton (cotton dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acid) itself dissolved in ether and alcohol. The plate would then be sensitised in a bath of silver nitrate.

After the exposure the negative required development in a solution of ferrous sulphate, alcohol and acetic acid. Fixing was in a solution of sodium thiosulphate, or sodium cyanide.

As is the way with a wet-plate method, Howlett would have had ten minutes to coat his glass plate with this explosive mixture, make his exposure and commence development. His working days would have been spent bustling between enormous cameras and a portable darkroom tent – probably one of the tents he himself designed and marketed.

However, darkroom tents in the 1850s were little more than a large hood and cape. With no ventilation the noxious, flammable vapours released by the processing mixtures had nowhere to go other than the lungs of the photographer.

If Robert wasn’t going to burn himself out from overwork there was the distinct possibility that he would blow himself up. Then there were the toxic fumes; for if Robert didn’t adequately wash his glass plates (to remove the acids before fixing in sodium cyanide), he would find himself inhaling hydrogen cyanide gas.


In 1857 The Illustrated Times commissioned Howlett and Cundall to document the construction of IK Brunel’s massive steamship the SS Great Eastern, called at the time The Leviathan.

Five times larger than any vessel afloat, The Leviathan was beginning to loom on the north bank of the River Thames, at Millwall Dock. There was immense public interest in the enterprise.

The railway mania of the 1840’s gone, the great railway engineer was gambling his prestige on the success of a steamship that he believed would revolutionise long-distance travel.

This immense vessel, Brunel hoped, would carry passengers and cargo around the Cape and as far as Australia without refueling, but the press were sceptical about the venture, and were proved right. Throughout her existence the Great Eastern was plagued with problems. Brunel himself would not live past her maiden voyage.

Knowing the fate of the vessel, and of Brunel himself add poignancy to Howlett’s beautiful images of the shipbuilding. Cundall’s work appears more literal.

Robert, we can see, was looking for angles, shapes and views. He was playing with scale, typically including a navvy or three in his shots, the men dwarfed by the behemoth towering above them.

As Andrew Nathum, curator of the London Science Museum’s 2006 exhibition Isambard Kingdom Brunel – Fame and Fortune puts it, Howlett’s eye is noticeably different to Cundall’s, and exceptionally for the time, very modern.

This is Robert Howlett’s great achievement, the modernity of his eye. One hundred and fifty years ago Robert was looking at his subject the way a good, a very good, photographer would look today.

Inevitably The Illustrated Times commission brought Howlett into contact with Brunel, and it wouldn’t have been Robert alone who was aware of the potential power of photography. Both of the Victorian pioneers would have understood how effectively this new medium could shape people’s opinion.

Brunel’s hugely ambitious Great Eastern project was in fact in trouble. His partner had gone bankrupt, and close to bankruptcy himself, Brunel’s health was failing. The civil engineer needed some good public relations. More than anything he needed to instil confidence in the minds of potential new investors.

So here was a marriage made in heaven. Brunel the great engineer in trouble needed Howlett the talented photographer. Robert Howlett needed a subject worthy of his talent.

Robert photographed Brunel with two cameras, one of them stereographic. For the key portrait he shot three versions over a number of days. Obviously photographer and subject were collaborating closely in the pursuit of the most potent image.

We can see how Howlett fine tuned the pose in front of the chains on one of the Great Eastern’s launching drums. In the first version Brunel is semi seated, his short legs foreshortened. In the second he appears inappropriately nonchalant, Then in the final, iconic image Brunel is quietly confident and master of all he surveys.

Howlett had tightened the crop, the background nothing more than those massive black chains.

“The excitement in this picture is that of photography recognising itself,” writes Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, adding to no small effect that Robert Howlett’s image has, “no precedent in the history of art.”

If, one day, you are in London then go to the Victoria and Albert Museum. On your left, inside the Grand Entrance, take the lift to the fourth floor and the Prints and Drawings Study Room where, if you ask politely you will be allowed to see their Howlett collection.

Out of a drawer come mounted albumen prints of the doomed leviathan at Millwall dock, and those images of Brunel. As Howlett’s camera was enormous you are looking at contact prints. The detail is extraordinary, the tonality and solid beauty exquisite.

Robert Howlett’s death certificate. The photographer told his friend Thomas Hardwich that he had a cold, but died following 20 days of fever. According to photohistorian Rose Teanby the most likely cause of Howlett’s death is Typhoid contracted from contaminated water. It is also worth noting that London’s poor sanitation culminated in 1858 with the ‘Great Stink.’


On December 2nd 1858, shortly after returning from a trip to France to try out a new fangled wide angle lens, Robert Howlett died in his lodgings at 10 Bedford Place (now Gardens), West London. He was 27.

As befits the passing of a legend a variety of causes were reported, ranging from “typhus, bought on by working in a cold and damp environment,” to an “excess of zeal, imprudence and overwork.”

Popular mythology ascribes Robert’s death to the noxious chemicals he was exposed to on a daily basis. Indeed, Robert’s friend Thomas Frederick Hardwich writing in the Photographic Society Journal remarked on the episode, “collodion photography, in the way that an amateur would practice it, is quite harmless; but the professional operator must be upon his guard: for unless he is a very strong man, he will certainly suffer in the end by continually shutting himself up in small rooms half full of the vapour of ether.”

However, the death certificate simply states febris, fever.

“In Robert Howlett we have lost a valued friend,” lamented The Photographic News, “in his profession, he was an excellent manipulator and a man of considerable taste, originality and mechanical genius.”

“One of the most skilful photographers of the day,” wrote The Illustrated London Times for whom Howlett had produced his finest work just twelve months previously.

In his short life the clergyman’s son from rural Norfolk had worked relentlessly, moving with the times when the times were moving fast. Perhaps he did burn himself out.

One thing is certain, Robert Howlett, creator of the first environmental portrait, the Victorian with the modern eye understood the power of a photograph like none before him, and few after.


The period 1850 to 1880 has been called the Age of Optimism, but as the SS Great Eastern proved the ambition of the early 1850s was not always fulfilled.

In 1857, the year Robert Howlett took his masterful portrait of Brunel, we see dark days, glimmers of light and echoes in our own times.

As Russia sends an army to suppress unrest in Chechnya, Britain, already at war with Persia, declares war against China. The resources of the British Empire are further stretched quelling the Indian Mutiny.

His collodion process unpatented, photographic inventor Frederick Scott Archer dies penniless in London, aged 43.

When Scott Archer’s wife dies the following year the Crown grants a pension of £50 to their children, “on the ground their father had reaped no benefit from an invention which had been a source of large profits to others.”

On 1 May 2010 Frederck Scott Archer was honoured with a ceremony at Kesnal Green cemetery during which a plaque was unveiled on his grave and the date of his death was confirmed as 1 May 1857.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Dickens’ Little Dorrit and Trollope’s Barchester Towers published.

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes Santa Filomena in tribute to Florence Nightingale, pioneer of modern nursing, who returns to England from the Crimea.

Portrait painter D.A. Woodward patents the solar enlarger.

The Victoria and Albert Museum opens in London.

The year ends as a period of speculation and overextended credit in the United States precipitates the first world economic crisis.

City Mayor Fernando Woods labeled a communist by The New York Times for declaring, “Truly may it be said that in New York those who produce everything get nothing, and those who produce nothing get everything.”


• Original albumen prints in the Prints and Drawings Study Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

• Two impressive blow ups and a number of original prints from Cundall and Howlett’s album Crimean Heroes and Trophies are at The National Army Museum, London.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York houses four Howlett prints: Brunel, the Bow of the Great Eastern, the Stern of the Great Eastern and an earlier landscape, In the Valley of the Mole.

The National Portrait Gallery, London.

• In 2004 the Royal mail issued a set of stamps using Cundall and Howlett’s portraits of Crimean war veterans to mark the 150th anniversary of the conflict.

Link to the PHOTO HISTORIES slide show The Time Machine featuring David White’s photographs of Brunelian Britain taken on a sliding-box camera similar to the one used by Robert Howlett in the 1850s.

The Light Shone and Was Spent: Robert Howlett and the Power of Photography text and photographs © 2009 David White, with grateful thanks to Ian Howlett and to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Browse more Photo Histories