Rare portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel - up for auction 1st October 2022


The oil portrait reveals a very different man from the familiar image of Brunel in a stove-pipe hat in front of massive chains. Instead of the faintly swaggering pose of that famous photograph, the painting of Brunel reveals a calm but intense individual: as ever, hard at work.

The relaxed feel of the portrait, thought to have been painted in 1885, is understandable as the artist, John Callcott Horsley, was his brother-in-law: Brunel having married Horsley’s elder sister, Elizabeth.

It’s reputed that Brunel sat for the painting at Horsley’s home near Torquay, Orestone Lodge - now Orestone Manor. Brunel fell in love with the English Riviera while he worked on the Great Western Railway, later buying a plot and starting to design Brunel Manor, where he planned to retire, on the outskirts of Torquay. The two families spent much time together.

The painting itself is one of a few that Horsley made of his famous brother-in-law. The near-identical original, painted a few years earlier in 1857, hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Horsley subsequently made four copies of that portrait: all but this example are in public institutions.

The painting that is coming up for sale - at the Canterbury Auction Galleries - came by family descent through Brunel’s granddaughter, Celia Brunel James, of Fleet House, Weymouth, then directly through the family to the current vendor. It was in the collection of Sir Humphrey Brunel Noble and exhibited at The Victorian Era Exhibition in 1897.

Brunel may have been famous for his many engineering feats, perhaps most notably the three giant steamships that transformed ocean travel - the Great Western (1838), the Great Britain (1845) and the Great Eastern (1858) and of course the Clifton Suspension Bridge. But Horsley himself was also well-known as a highly successful artist. He was a Royal Academician and had been commissioned by Queen Victoria. Many of his frescoes decorate the Palace of Westminster.

Horsley’s popular claim to fame, however, was as the designer of the first Christmas card. Rather less welcome renown came from his public objection to the prevalence of using nude life models - his stand earned him the mocking nickname of 'Clothes-Horsley'.

Horsley’s evocative painting is all the more precious as it captures Brunel in his prime. Some two years after sitting for the original portrait, he died at just 53 in 1859, after suffering a stroke on the deck of the SS Great Eastern.

The oil on canvas measures 36ins x 28ins and on the reverse is a painted inscription: "This copy from the original portrait of Isambard Kingdom Brunel C.E (now in the possession of Isambard Brunel Esq) was made for H.M. Brunel. C.E. Both pictures were painted by J.C. Horsley, R.A. The original in 1857 - the copy in 1885".

The auction will be held on October 1 and 2. Estimated value is £10,000 – £15,000.

 *For more information email: general@tcag.co.uk 

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