‘I alone am hung in chains’: Isambard Kingdom Brunel examined through a photograph and the ugly beauty of his industrial world by Sian James
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was both man and myth. He left a physical imprint on the nation through his bridges, railways, tunnels and ships and, despite some notorious failures, evolved into a symbol for all that was noble and inventive about the Victorian industrial age. Any assessment of his reputation should accommodate his real, material world and the semi-fictional one created around his memory. This article will analyse Brunel’s historical and imagined ‘selves’ through two artefacts which inhabit both these ‘worlds’ and with which he was closely associated. These are the now-iconic photograph of him by Robert Howlett taken at the launch of the SS Great Eastern in 1857 and iron-ore chain links made by a London-Welsh company, Brown, Lenox which Brunel championed and which demonstrate his life-long passion for resolving real-world engineering problems.