The History of Our Nation Told Through Objects

Stereoscopic photographs of the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel by Robert Howlett & George Downes, c.1856-1857

My recent visit to SS. Great Britain in Bristol has reminded me of the remarkable love of history seeded in me by Joyce Sleight as a school boy. Joyce taught British Social, Economic and Political History which explored our procession towards the reforming, inclusive, liberal and predominately tolerant society we live in today. It celebrated our industrialists and social reformers whilst tackling head on slavery, child labour and poverty. We were taught to be objective and not to judge history from the perspective of our own times so that the shadow of history could shape our thinking and inspire us to continue in the nation’s centuries long purpose to strive for fairness, to make things better and work for the common good. Education in those days was less about box ticking, process and grades and more about shaping and forming generous, creative, questioning minds. A love of learning for its own sake.

Amongst our greatest engineers was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Isambard designed and built the Great Western Railway and had the vision and drive to attempt to continue the line to America building three revolutionary steam ships.

The largest of these was the Great Eastern. She left Deptford on the 7th September 1858. Large crowds gathered to witness her steaming down the Thames for her first sea trials. As she passed Hastings on the 9th September tragedy struck. A heater attached to the paddle engine boilers exploded killing six firemen. Isambard’s revolutionary design with water tight compartments and bulkheads saved the ship. Isambard had suffered a stroke on the ship shortly before she set out and many argue that this tragedy hastened his demise. He died on the 15th September 1858.

The Great Eastern ABC, or, Big Ship Alphabet children’s book

Perhaps this explains why the copy of the children’s book The Great Eastern ABC, or, Big Ship Alphabet with its 26 hand-coloured wood-engraved alphabetical vignettes is so rare. It was entered as part of a single owner archive collection by a direct descendent of Isambard’s father Sir Marc Isambard Brunel at Toovey’s and realised £9,000.

You get a real sense of Brunel the man in the photographic stereoscopic slides which sold at Toovey’s for £14,000. The photographs were taken in about 1856-1857 by Robert Howlett and George Downes. They depict Brunel before The Great Eastern.

Objects have such a power to bring history to life and connect us with the story of our processional nation inspiring us to continue to work for the common good.

A Postcard from Bristol’s SS Great Britain

Rupert Toovey and the SS Great Britain at Bristol’s Historic Docks

The 19th century visionary and engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), has been described as the nation’s most important engineer and was a key figure in Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Sussex has some claim to this remarkable figure as Brunel’s early schooling was at Dr Morrell’s boarding school in Hove before being educated in France.

He is famous for building the Great Western Railway (GWR) pioneering the 7ft 1/4 inch Broad Guage and constructing the line with carefully surveyed gradients, new viaducts, bridges and the revolutionary 2 mile box tunnel. He had a gift for thinking on a grand scale and revolutionised modern engineering and transport. There was astonishment when he proposed to continue the GWR to America.

Brunel designed and built the Clifton Suspension Bridge and three transatlantic ships. SS Great Britain was the second of these vessels. An iron-hulled ship with a steam driven propeller it revolutionised naval engineering and is considered to be the world’s first modern ship. She was launched amidst much fanfare by Prince Albert in July 1843 who travelled down from London on a Great Western train which made the journey from London to Bristol in just 2 hours 40 minutes. It took two more years to complete Great Britain and in 1845 she set out from Liverpool for New York and became the first steam driven propeller ship to cross the Atlantic. Measuring 322 feet in length she was the largest ship afloat at the time of her launch.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

A navigational error caused her to run aground in 1846. She was salvaged and from 1852 carried emigrants to Australia. In 1881 she was converted to all-sail and the engines removed to make way for more cargo. The masts and sails were on an enormous scale. Just three years later she was retired to the Falkland Islands where she was used as a warehouse and coal hulk. This grand old ship was finally scuttled in 1936.

In 1970 the British industrialist and philanthropist Sir Jack Arnold Haywood, OBE paid for Great Britain to be refloated and brought back to the dry dock in Bristol where she had been built some 127 years earlier.

Today the scale of this grand old ship still impresses and the historic dockyard and museum eloquently give voice to her story. Going aboard the ship the experience is immersive and you feel you have travelled back in time as you walk past the engines, the grand first class dining hall and below decks promenade, to the more cramped conditions of the steerage class.

“Bruneliana” sells at Toovey’s

The Brunel/Noble silver trunk

The Brunel Hawes Archive was successfully sold by Toovey’s in November 2010. The sale made national newspapers including the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, and was even a topic of discussion by the National Trust in a fascinating blog post. Since the single owner auction it has been well reported that Toovey’s have established themselves as the leading auctioneers in the successful marketing and sale of items relating to the Brunel family. As the main port of call for selling items relating to Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, it is unsurprising that an array of related items have gone under the gavel at our Spring Gardens auction house.  Items offered for sale since the Brunel Hawes Archive include ‘The Great Eastern ABC’ (featured in a previous blog post), that sold for £9000. In the same auction a slightly tatty copy of  the scarce publication ‘A Complete History of the Great Eastern‘ sold for £800.  This fascinating pamphlet published by the Liverpool department Store, Lewis’s, advertised the ship’s final use as a floating music hall. A mug and nursery plate commemorating the Thames Tunnel sold for £580, showing the demand is not just for I.K., but for his father, Sir Marc, too.  Among the slightly more unusual items offered was a silver trunk that once belonged to the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel which also beared the marks of his granddaughter’s husband Saxton William Armstrong Noble, who coincidently, was also an engineer. The oak and metal bound trunk sold for £1750 in March this year.

George Henry Andrews watercolour

In April, a fascinating and possibly unique group of seven magic lantern slides were sold for £5800. Each documented the last few days of the Great Eastern and included views on deck with items grouped as lots prior to the breaking up of the ship in 1889. Two months later a mid-19th Century watercolour was consigned, titled ‘History of Steam Navigation‘, this monochrome watercolour by George Henry Andrews was probably a preliminary drawing for the ‘Illustrated London News’ for whom the artist worked for. The central view was of the S.S. Great Eastern but surrounding this was smaller titled vignettes including I.K. Brunel’s other ships the Great Britain and the Great Western. This original work sold for £3200. The most recent offering of “Bruneliana” appeared in August as part of the auction of Paper Collectables. A concertina style optical toy peepshow of the Thames Tunnel from the Wapping Entrance sold for £1100. Over the last two years a variety of photographs relating to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his engineering triumphs have also featured in Toovey’s auctions and always attract considerable interest, more of these are already consigned for the Sale of Paper Collectables on 6th November. Some people might wonder why these items appear in Sussex when the Brunels are much more associated with Bristol and London. The days of internet advertising and Toovey’s direct marketing mean that successful sales of “Bruneliana” can be held in Sussex. These items have sold to private collectors, specialist dealers, institutions and investment corporations across the country.  As the Antiques Trade Gazette reported on the 24th March “The Sussex village of Washington has to a very large degree become the preferred point of sale for Brunel material in recent times.”  Those still wanting a tenuous link with the Brunel family and Sussex however, can find one in the schooling of Isambard Kingdom. Between 1816 and 1820 the young, future engineer attended Dr Morell’s Academy in Hove, where it is believed he nearly choked on a half sovereign. As a result of this local connection the Brighton & Hove 673 double-decker bus is named after the famed engineer – an arguably useless piece of trivia to finish with!

Isambard Kingdom Brunel & The Great Eastern ABC

Great Eastern A.B.C., or Big Ship Alphabet Children's Book

Many regular followers of Toovey’s auctions will remember the remarkable single-owner collection, the Brunel Hawes Archive, offered for sale in November 2010. All items were entered by a descendant of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. Sir Marc was an eminent engineer, but arguably overshadowed by his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The prices realised at the single-owner sale undoubtedly provided a market correction in values for items relating to the Brunel family at auction. With the accompanying national press attention after such a sale, some other Brunel-related material was entered by other vendors and successfully sold at Toovey’s Sussex auction house throughout 2011. This year looks set to be no different, with a very interesting children’s book already consigned and entered for the specialist Antiquarian and Collectors’ Book auction on 21st February. Titled The Great Eastern ABC, or, Big Ship Alphabet. Designed alike for the instruction of youth and the entertainment of all ages and conditions, the 16-page book (including the printed wrappers) is a surprising rarity, published just after the death by drowning of Captain Harrison on 21st January 1860.

It has 26 hand-coloured wood-engraved vignettes, one for each alphabetic couplet, including a pasted-over slip below a portrait of Harrison standing on deck, stating ‘H stood for poor Harrison – How sad was his fate! / It now stands for Hall, appointed of late’, perhaps making this charming book an unrecorded variant or second issue of an already scarce title. The original version published in time to be noted in ‘The Athenaeum Journal’ of 28th January 1860 and ‘The Economist’ of 14 January 1860, stated ‘H is for Harrison her skilful commander, / None can excel him (without any slander)’.

Every page in the book has delightful vignette illustrations but perhaps the most interesting from a collector’s point of view is a portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel above ‘B stands for Brunel that famed engineer, / With whom, it is said, arose the idea’. The children’s book is bound in the original printed thin card wrappers, the upper cover blocked with the title and integral vignette, the backstrip reinforced with 19th Century paper. The little book does have minor condition issues, including a little damp-staining, but for a paperback book of this age, intended for the use of children, it has survived in remarkably good condition. Perhaps this is the reason it is such a rarity, or perhaps it is because sales were poor as the boat’s subsequent ill-fated career proved to be a far from ideal example for young children. This is speculation, but Toovey’s have not been able to find another copy of the same title selling at auction in the last thirty years. This wonderful collector’s book will be offered at Toovey’s Washington salerooms with the potentially conservative pre-sale estimate of £1000-1500. (Please click on an image to make it larger, and again for further magnification)