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The Time Machine

Evoking the spirit of Robert Howlett’s iconic portrait of I.K. Brunel, David White journeyed through Brunelian Britain with a recreated sliding-box camera and an original lens from the 1850s. Graham Harrison reports.

“I have been here before, but when or how I cannot tell.” Sudden Light, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Robert Howlett’s masterful portrait of I.K. Brunel standing before the launching chains of his steamship, The Great Eastern in 1857 was the summit of a decade when, in Eric Hobsbawn’s words, photography came of age.

So inspired by Howlett’s image was photojournalist David White, that he decided to document Brunel’s Britain with a sliding-box camera similar to the one Howlett would have used for his portrait one hundred and fifty years ago.

David’s camera was built from reclaimed brass and mahogany by Cheltenham cabinet maker Ivan Rose. The optic is an original 18 3/4 inch (475mm) f4 lens (equivalent to 75mm on a 35mm film camera) which was made in France in 1855.

The lens produces an image of 10×12 inches (25×30cm), the same size as Robert Howlett’s contact print of Brunel.

Reluctant to use the chemistry which could have led to Robert Howlett’s premature death, David White opted for Adox 100 and 400 asa 10×12 inch sheet film processed in open trays of APH09.

Darkness at Noon: photojournalist David White contact-prints his 10×12 inch negatives in his darkroom. In 1857 Robert Howlett would have needed full sunlight to print out his albumen prints. Photo © David White.

Howlett’s prints are contact prints onto albumen paper. David’s prints are also contact prints, but on Adox silver-rich bromide paper developed in old formula chemicals. They have been sepia toned to achieve an archival permanence of 300 years.

For a photographer who has travelled the globe with Leicas and Nikons, picking up a World Press Photo Award along the way, David found the logistics of working with the great mahogany box a “delicious” challenge.

The size and weight of the box with a fixed lens and just four double dark slides – limiting him to one or two images per subject – helped concentrate White’s mind.

With a lens cap and no shutter he needed long exposures to allow time to uncap and cap the lens, the fast film speed causing problems that Howlett would not have encountered in the 1850s, when a collodion wet-plate would have had a speed below one asa.

By day David used neutral density filters taped over waterhouse stops to lengthen the exposure.

At night reciprocity failure (sudoku for old photographers) came into play, much as as it would have done in 1857.

On his journey through Brunelian Britain and his investigation into the working methods of the great Victorian photographer Robert Howlett, David White said, “I learnt to look, I learnt to look long and hard, and I learnt to wait.”

“I learnt that there is no rush, because there can be no rush.”


In the decade following the Great Exhibition of 1851 the number of photographers registered in Great Britain and Ireland rose from fifty-one to 2,534.

By 1861 London’s Regent Street alone housed no less than thirty-five photographic studios to meet the demand for stereo prints, cartes-de-visite and family portraits from the new Victorian middle-classes.

The explosion in photography was sparked by the availability to all of Frederic Scott Archer’s unpatented wet-plate collodion process, invented in 1851.

As photography expanded commercially it began to impact on the consciousness of Victorian Britain, for just as the first photojournalism transformed perceptions of the Crimean war and so all subsequent war, the first photographic portraiture, to be available to the general public, transformed perceptions of how the individual not only appeared to others but how he or she related to rest of society.

When Robert Howlett’s great nephew, Ian, first saw the Howlett name associated with the famous portrait of Brunel he didn’t realise there could be a family link.

A former videotape editor at the BBC, Ian Howlett knew some family history and had discovered that the Reverend Robert Howlett had had two families, and a son Robert who’d vanished by 1861. But the association with Robert Howlett the photographer remained obscured.

The connection was made by the Mail on Sunday in 2004, not because they were investigating the double life of a nineteenth century vicar, but because of the Royal Mail Crimean War anniversary stamp issue of that year. The stamps used six portraits from Howlett and Cundall’s series, Crimean Heroes and Trophies.

“I discovered that the lost relative, whose family life I now knew quite a bit about, was actually the famous photographer whose early life was a total mystery to all his biographers,” says Ian Howlett.

“Since then I have been reading up on the Victorian photographers, but it was seeing David with his camera that really brought the man to life.”

Slow speed camera: traffic decelerated on Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge when David White took his night shots. Photo © David White.

• David White on the BBC Today Programme website.

• David White’s work was featured in Portfolio, the AoP New Members Exhibition at the Association of Photographers, 81 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS, March 4th -26th 2009.

• David White’s work on Nospin and Duckrabbit.

Text © Graham Harrison
Photos © David White

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