3 July 1831
|Died||2 December 1858
10 Bedford Place, Campden Hill, Kensington
Robert Howlett (born 1831 in Theberton, Suffolk, died 10 Bedford Place, Campden Hill, Kensington, London, 2 Dec 1858), was a pioneering British photographer whose pictures are widely exhibited in major galleries. Howlett produced portraits of Crimean War heroes, genre scenes and landscapes. His photographs include the iconic picture of Isambard Kingdom Brunel which was part of a commission by The Times (or Illustrated Times) to document the construction of the world's largest steamship, the SS Great Eastern.
He exhibited at the London Photographic Society and published “On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation.” He worked in partnership with Joseph Cundall at "The Photographic Institution" at New Bond Street, London.
Howlett was commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to photograph the frescoes in the new drawing-room at Buckingham Palace, make copies of the paintings by Raphael and make a series of portraits called 'Crimean Heroes' which was exhibited in 1857 the Photographic Society of London's annual exhibition.
Howlett died in 1858, aged 27. The cause of death was probably as a result of over-exposure to the arsenic and mercury used in the photographic process. The Illustrated Times praised him as "one of the most skillful photographers of the day".
Life and work
Robert Howlett was the second of four sons of Reverend Robert Howlett and Harriet Harsant. Two brothers died in infancy and his younger brother Thomas became a farmer. Robert was born in Theberton, Suffolk and the family had moved to Longham, Norfolk by the time he was 9 years old. Robert's maternal grandfather, Thomas Harsant, a surgeon, owned telescopes, microscopes, electrical machines, implements and instruments. Robert built his own microscope. Circa 1845, the parsonage in Longham had an electrical telegraph link to the local Manor House, this was only eight years after Samuel Morse filed his telegraphy patent in America. Thomas Harsant died in 1852 and left Robert £1000 plus his “turning lathe and all the apparatus and tools belonging thereto.” Robert was thus able to move to London He rose to prominence while working for the Photographic Institution at 168 New Bond Street, London, which was a leading establishment for the commercial promotion of photography through exhibitions, publications, and commissions. Although the Photographic Institution was established in 1853 by Joseph Cundall and Philip Henry Delamotte, it is believed that Howlett replaced Delamotte, who became professor of drawing at King's College London.
By 1856 Howlett was mentioned in the photographic press. He sent prints to the annual exhibitions of photographic societies in London, Manchester, and Norwich. These included landscape studies, In the Valley of the River Mole, Mickleham, and Box Hill, Surrey, which are presumed to have been taken in 1855.
He exhibited at the London Photographic Society and in 1856 published a booklet “On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation.” He also designed and sold 'dark room tents' and worked in partnership with Joseph Cundall at "The Photographic Institution" at 168 New Bond Street, London.
Howlett undertook the first of a number of commissions for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1856, working for the Photographic Institution. These included copying the works of Raphael for Prince Albert, and making a series of portraits of heroic soldiers from the Crimean War. These were first exhibited in 1857 as 'Crimean Heroes' at the Photographic Society of London's annual exhibition.[n 1] In 2004 Cundall and Howlett’s portraits of Crimean war veterans, were used by the Royal Mail for a set of six postage stamps to mark the 150th anniversary of the conflict.
Howlett's studio portraits at 'The Photographic Institute' included eminent 'fine artists' such as William Powell Frith, Frederick Richard Pickersgill, John Callcott Horsley, and Thomas Webster which were among a larger group exhibited at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857.
Howlett was commissioned to make photographic studies of the crowd at the 1856 Epsom Derby for the painter William Powell Frith, who used them in 1858 for his painting of The Derby Day which was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art in 1859. The photographs were taken from the roof of a cab.
The Great Eastern
Howlett's major work was the commission by The Times (or Illustrated Times) to document the construction of the world's largest steamship, the SS Great Eastern. His images were translated into engravings for The Illustrated Times. They reflected and stimulated the widespread interest in this feat of engineering.
This project included the well known portrait of the Great Eastern’s creator and engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, standing in front of the giant launching chains on the 'checking drum' braking mechanism at John Scott Russell’s Millwall shipyard. It was taken to celebrate the launch of the world’s largest steamship, in November 1857.
Howlett died in 1858, aged 27, in lodgings at 10 Bedford Place, Campden Hill, shortly after returning from a trip to France to try out a new 'wide angle lens'. The cause of death was probably as a result of over-exposure to the arsenic and mercury used in the Collodion photographic process that was invented by Frederick Scott Archer in about 1850. The Illustrated Times praised him as "one of the most skillful photographers of the day". However, the death certificate simply states 'febris' (fever), 20 days. Howlett had originally told a friend he had a cold. Typhus was also surmised as 1858 was the year of ‘The Great Stink.
Galleries showing Robert Howlett
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Robert Howlett.|
- London, National Portrait Gallery
- London, Victoria and Albert Museum
- New York, Hans P. Kraus, Jr., Fine Photographs
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- Cleveland Museum of Art,
- On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation by Robert Howlett
In 2008, photojournalist David White recreated both Howlett's camera and the Brunel commission, travelling across south and west England.
In 2009, the article The Light Shone and Was Spent: Robert Howlett and the Power of Photography by David White was published on PHOTO HISTORIES.
- Note: There are 2 discrete sets of 'Crimean Heroes' pictures. One by Howlett and the other by Joseph Cundall
- Photo Histories
- Oxford Dictionary of Biography, Link to entry for Robert Howlett
- World Wide Art Resources, Biography: Artist: Robert Howlett (1831 - 1858)
- BBC Radio4, Today. Audio slideshow: Brunel's achievements revisited
- Answers, Profile of Robert Howlett
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Image of Crimean Braves 1856, by Robert Howlett and John Cundall
- The Guardian, 17 June 2000, Appreciation of image of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, by Robert Howlett (1857)
- Victoria and Albert Museum, Review of works by Robert Howlett
- Google Books, copy of “On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation.”
- National Portrait Gallery, Notes about Robert Howlett
- Cartage, Biography of Joseph Cundall
- Answers, Profile of Robert Howlett by Kelley E. Wilder
- Icons, Profile of Robert Howlett
- Cleveland Museum of Art, Photograph of Deck Scene of the Great Eastern by Robert Howlett
- Sources listed at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Roger Taylor, Oxford University Press, 2004.accessed 2 Dec 2008
- G. Seiberling and C. Bloor, Amateurs, photography, and the mid-Victorian imagination (1986)
- Mr Hardwick, Journal of the Photographic Society, 5 (1858–9), 111–12
- A. Hamber, A higher branch of the arts (1996)
- R. Taylor, Critical moments: British photographic exhibitions, 1839–1865’, Data base, priv. coll.
- Death Certificate. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1859)