Brunel 200 Legacy David White – 'Desrving of Wonder'.
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'Deserving of Wonder' – The triumphs of Brunel

David White has been working as a professional photographer since 1988, regularly working with Marie Clare, as well as the Guardian, the Independent and Elle magazine. During this project, David “wanted to find out technically how Robert Howlett photographed Brunel in front of the Great Eastern… in 1857”.

David produced a series of photographs of Brunel’s greatest engineering triumphs across the British Isles, using the same unique 19th century camera and lens combination as Robert Howlett used for the classic ‘chains’ shot of Brunel alongside the ss Great Eastern (below). The photographs were exhibited in the Central Library in Bristol, and received national media coverage.

Robert Howlett's classic ‘chains’ shot of Brunel alongside the ss Great Eastern.

David researched the technical specification of the camera fully in order to create authentic images, which were technically, as well as visually, similar to Howlett’s.

The camera itself was constructed by a craftsman in Cheltenham, and built from mahogany and brass; the lens used was an 1855 portrait lens, with a focal length of 18 ¾” which David found with assistance from various museums and collectors. Howlett had used something very similar, in a twin sliding box camera with a 12” x 10” glass plate, and wet glass plate collodion process to capture the image, which was printed onto albumen paper.

Box Tunnel.

Box Tunnel.

After some consideration, David decided not to follow the processes of Howlett, as the chemicals involved had killed Howlett aged just 27! Instead, David chose a 12” x 10” film, which in itself is hard to source.

Aside from the technical difficulties faced in building the camera and sourcing the component parts, chemicals and paper, it was also huge, unwieldy and difficult to use.

“There are seemingly 100 ways to mess up with such a simple camera, so every potential image had to be approached slowly and carefully. This camera cannot be rushed. I had to be almost Zen-like in my respect of it. In many ways the camera dictated my approach to the subjects”. David said.

Paddington Station.

Paddington Station.

David’s exhibition featured 20 images, including the Royal Albert Bridge, Paddington Station, Box Tunnel and Star Cross pumping station in South Devon. David travelled to each of the locations, with the brass and mahogany camera in tow. Due to the complexities of the camera, it took several hours to get one image in some cases, as well as requiring very long exposures assisted by candle-power torches.

ss Great Britain.

Great Britain.

David said of the prints, “They are possibly the most beautiful prints I have ever made. In fact, they are, and I have been taking photos for 18 years”.

He continued:

“I have learnt many things from this delicious project. My respect for Brunel before inception of photography was high. Now it is stratospheric…. It was his determination and relentless drive that drove me to push myself as far as I could go, both physically and aesthetically with the camera”.

David’s photographs can be viewed at


Masthead photography: Mark Simmons.