Isambard Kingdom Brunel, by Robert Howlett, 1857

When recreating a portrait for my descendants series it really does help to start with an iconic image and images don’t come much more iconic than the portrait of legendary Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in front of the chains of The Great Eastern, taken by Robert Howlett in 1857 commissioned by the Illustrated London Times

Though as I was to discover this was going to be considerably more complex than I imagined.

I have long held an interest in Isambard Kingdom Brunel in fact from a small boy his image was one of a series I kept in a sticker book. It turns out that this was a 1970’s petrol station collection series called ’15 Great Britons’ and though I am now the wrong side of 50 it is interesting how much of a impression this book made on me and several of the subjects in the collection from my Father’s visit to the petrol station in his Ford Cortina are featured in my descendants series.

Names don’t come any bigger and bolder than Isambard Kingdom Brunel and in his relatively short life he achieved so many engineering first’s, changing the face of the English landscape with his groundbreaking designs from the first tunnel under a navigable river, the Clifton Suspension bridge in Bristol and multiple ground breaking railway projects not to mention the first propellor driven iron hulled ship to cross the Atlantic-the SS Great Britain.

To get some idea of the scale of this remarkable achievement from 1843 I took a trip along there and shot a 360 panorama with the propellor being the star of the show.

I started the search for a direct descendant who would be of the right age and appearance and found Isambard Thomas, his third grandson. After a few calls and emails Isambard T was onboard.

All that remained to do was locate the chains, could they still exist?

First stop was wonderful SS Great Britain exhibit in Bristol and at the time they could not help (for reasons I cannot recall, though I see they do now have a recreation of their own)

Ok, just go and find some other chains, simple right?


After some in-depth research I discovered that chains like this are not exactly thick on the ground.

Phone calls to various shipping companies were met by long silences or a plain ‘no’

I racked my brains to think exactly who would be using chains of this size and scale.

Ship building has taken a hit in the UK so enquires in this area were not successful.

Then during one enquiry someone mentioned that the oil industry still used massive chains in the process of building and securing oil rigs.

A flurry of calls and emails to big oil companies ensued and finally I found a company who did not think I was insane.

I could do the shoot at their oil rig yard in Aberdeen on the North East coast of Scotland, at 500 or so miles a bit of a way to go but definitely worth it as they said they would do whatever it took to help.

They put me in touch with the right person at the yard and he confirmed that they had chains of the right size and scale. The conversation was going well until I mentioned that the chains needed to be wound in a similar fashion to the original photo and I was informed that chains are no longer stored in such a fashion but in long ‘zig zag’ lines in the yard and furthermore they had could not wind them like that and had no ‘checking drum’ (the name of the ‘spool’ the chains are wound around in the original photo)

So much time so much effort spent on research and I was well and truly back to square one.

At this point I really did wonder if it was going to be possible at all.

Then I hit an idea – why not photograph smaller chains of the right scale and ‘texture’ 

Where to get such things?

At the time I lived in Northamptonshire in a small village which had a blacksmith George James and Sons who have been in business since the time of Brunel so I swung by and told them of my challenge, they let me grub around and let me take some chains which might work.

Could this hare brained scheme actually work? This was all still very much in the realms of ‘if’ and I did not know it was going to work.

With all of my photographs I do like to start with the ‘real’ location but needs must.

So after trying out different chains I found a set which looked right and would ‘wind’ in the right way.

My confidence was beginning to grow and it was apparent that with care and attention to detail that this approach might, just might, work.

One of the advantages of working in ‘miniature’ and scaling up is that you can completely control the lighting without resorting to a big lighting set up and a big crew.

As you can see I managed to create the shadow fall off at the base of the chains, imagine the lighting set up I would have needed to achieve this if I were working on full size chains.

For those who are interested in lighting you of note is the slate grey base I used, to give a degree of reflection similar to the original.

The chains were missing one key detail though and that was the little braces across the chains and this had to be recreated in post production in painstaking detail – it took a couple of days.

Other components we were missing were the large ship mooring post and sticking with the miniature theme I headed out into the back garden and saw a fence post which might, just might work.


We then scaled the component images to ‘life’ size and created an excellent and pretty authentic looking canvas.

All that was left to do was to get Isambard Thomas’s sizes and speak to my historical costumier of choice, and author of note, Nicky Albrechtsen to source the costume.

There are quite a few details in there but of particular note including the trousers which had a high waist and the ‘frog mouth’ pockets.

However my favourite detail is the leather strap to something we cannot see, as it is behind him in the shot.

What could it be attached to? Binoculars? The answer proved to be far more interesting.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel loved his cigars and was very rarely seen without one and the strap is attached to his cigar box which kept him with provisioned with a day’s supply of cigars-he was reputed to be a 40 cigar a day man – a habit which may have well contributed to his untimely death.

The SS Great Britain site is a great resource for all things Brunel where you can see his cigar case complete with this last cigar

I shot the project on a Hasselblad H1 with the really wonderful Phase One P25 made by the medium format wizards in Copenhagen(brilliant quality and you can now pick them up on Ebay for a song) it may ‘only’ have 22 megapixels but the quality is outstanding.

The camera was mounted on the ‘do anything’ Gitzo 5 series Tripod, and a Manfrotto 405 geared head which allows subtle fingertip adjustments. I cannot overstate the paramount importance of this set up and the sheer accuracy and precision it helps deliver on such a shoot-out is important that on any shoot which involves composting that you can consistently reproduce the correct camera angle, it can save hours or even days in post work.

I lit the image with Elinchrom lights modified through my ‘go to’ modifier of choice for jobs like this Chimera medium Softbox.

The images were processed in the excellent raw processing software Capture One Pro and predictably put together in Adobe Photoshop

Isambard Thomas, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great great great grandson

So there you have it, my quest to make this image happen started with the possibility of a shoot in a Scottish oil rig yard and ended up being shot in at another iconic location, Holborn Studios in London (indeed Helmut Newton dubbed it the ‘Abbey Road of photography’)with a little help from ‘found’ objects in the local blacksmith’s and in my back garden.

So often in life it seems to end up this way, seeking the answer in one place and finding it in quite another.

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