Robert Howlett was born to Reverend Robert and Harriet Harsant Howlett in Suffolk, England on July 3, 1831. The second of four sons (two died in infancy), he and his family relocated to Norwalk, where his father became vicar of Longham. He became a scientific prodigy, constructing his own microscope and telegraph during his childhood. Therefore, it is not surprising that the young man would be introduced to photography in its early years, having become intrigued by Frederick Scott Turner’s wet plate collodion process. When his wealthy surgeon maternal grandfather in 1852, Mr. Howlett invested his inheritance in cameras and photographic equipment He designed state-of-the-art portable tents so that he could transport his materials anywhere and develop landscape photographs on-site.
After exhibiting a few of his early works at the Crystal Palace’s Great Exhibition of 1851, Mr. Howlett headed to London, where he met fellow photographer Joseph Cundall, a founding member of the Royal Photographic Society and owner of the Photographic Institution, one of the premier portrait galleries and a fruitful meeting place for aspiring photographers. The two men became business partners in 1855, which brought Mr. Howlett’s photographs to widespread industry attention. While building his professional reputation, he was also perfecting and marketing his portable photographic tent, and published the professional text, On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Paper upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation, in 1856.
Reaching the pinnacle of his career in 1856-57. Mr. Howlett was commissioned by painter William Powell Frith and Prince Albert (himself an avid photographer) to document various paintings and frescoes. Queen Victoria subsequently commissioned him to photograph British soldiers returning from the Crimean War, to be published in a commemorative volume. However, Mr. Howlett went far beyond traditional studio portraits for this assignment, and ventured down to the docks and the veterans’ hospital to capture authentic candid shots of these heroes, in what is believed to be some of the earliest examples of environmental portraiture. In 1857, Mr. Howlett was commissioned to photograph the steamship construction of the Leviathan (later renamed The Great Eastern), the masterwork of engineering genius Isambard Kingdom (“I. K.”) Brunel. In one iconic image, the photographer managed to characterize what has become known as “The Age of Optimism,” complete with the massive technological invention in the background (complete with imposing chains) and the supremely confident inventor standing proudly in the foreground.
For nearly two years, Mr. Howlett was working practically nonstop in a tent that, while practical, provided no ventilation from poisonous chemicals. Shortly after purchasing a new wide-angle lens in France, Mr. Howlett suddenly became ill and died at his home in West London on December 2, 1858 at the age of 27. Though “febris” (fever) is listed as his official cause of death, the noxious fumes the photographer inhaled daily combined with London’s poor sanitation were certainly contributing factors to Robert Howlett’s premature demise. His original albumen prints are housed within London’s Victoria and Albert Museum; his original Crimean War prints are at London’s National Army Museum; some portraits can be found at London’s National Portrait Gallery; and his ‘Great Eastern’ prints are presently located at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
1986 Amateurs, Photography, and the Mid-Victorian Imagination by Grace Seiberling, with Carolyn Bloore (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), p. 133.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 354, 716-718.
2018 [Group portrait: J. Scott Russell, Henry Wakefield, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Lord Derby] (URL: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/43597/robert-howlett-group-portrait-j-scott-russell-henry-wakefield-isambard-kingdom-brunel-lord-derby-british-november-28-1857).
2000 Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Robert Howlett (1857) (URL: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2000/jun/17/art).
2009 The Light Shone and Was Spent: Robert Howlett and the Power of Photography by David White (URL: http://www.photohistories.com/Photo-Histories/51/robert-howlett-and-the-power-of-photography).
1858 Photographic Notes, Vol. III (Jersey, UK: Thomas Sutton), p. 290.
2018 Portrait of Robert Howlett (URL: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O181757/portrait-of-robert-howlett-photograph-turner-benjamin-brecknell).
1988 Recent Acquisitions: A Selection, 1987–1988 by The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art), p. 46.
2018 Robert Howlett: Pioneering Photographer (URL: http://longham.org.uk/howlett.asp).
2011 Routes, Roads and Landscapes edited by Mari Hvattum (Surrey, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited), p. 123.
2017 Seizing the Light: A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography by Robert Hirsch (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group), p. 146.
1993 The Waking Dream by Maria Morris Hambourg (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), p. 273.
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