Tuesday 29 December 2009

Brunel's Great Eastern

(National Maritime Museum)

Yesterday's cycle ride which passed the launch site of Brunel's famous Great Eastern ship on the Isle of Dogs reminded me to share one of my favourite paintings with you. Building the Great Leviathan, by William Parrott, shows the construction of the great ship at Millwall Shipyard, with the domes of the Old Royal Naval College in the background.

It's not really the kind of painting I would have on my wall, but it moves me for a number of reasons. I am a great admirer of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and his life and works continue to fascinate me. The fact that he is so inextricably linked to Deptford and surrounds by his involvement in the Thames Tunnel (through which the East London Line now runs) and the construction of the Great Eastern, pleases me more than I can explain.

Often when I'm gazing out across the River Thames from Millennium Quay, I try to imagine how the view would have been when Brunel's 'great leviathan' was finished and ready for launching, towering over all the buildings that surrounded it. I am sure that if it was there now it would still look impressive, even with all the tall blocks around it.

The painting is usually on display at the National Maritime Museum - you can find out more about the story of the ship at the NMM's website here.


Photographer Robert Howlett documented the construction of the Great Eastern for The Times, and his famous photograph of Brunel in front of a set of enormous chains was part of this work.

If you are interested in finding out more about Brunel, you should take a trip to the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, which is housed in buildings at the top of the shaft from which the Thames Tunnel was driven.

Many books have been written about Brunel; I would recommend two in particular.

LTC Rolt's biography of Brunel has endured several decades; it might not have the glossy photos and diagrams of other publications, but the style and content is excellent.

For great pictures (including a large fold-out print of Parrott's painting) and a stylish design which is nonetheless not compromised by content, try Steven Brindle's excellent hardback book 'Brunel; The man who built the world'.

1 comment:

Gareth Gardner said...

It's such a great painting. It also makes me want to investigate Brunel over here in West London - no enormous ships, but in Brentford he built a dock and GWR branchline, which closed in the 1960s but fragments remain. There's also Three Bridges in Southall, a three-level structure taking a road over canal over railway line!