“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.(page