Bridgeman Images is proud to represent the Thames Tunnel Archive at the Brunel Museum which showcases the art of engineering, incorporating a series of hand-drawn watercolours which demonstrate the technical and artistic skills of the Brunel family.
The Brunel Museum is a charity which aims to educate people on one of the greatest engineering dynasties in the world. Their mission is to preserve and share the stories of the Thames Tunnel Project, as well as the astonishing achievements of the Brunel family. The world’s first underground concert party was held at Brunel in 1827, where they now celebrate music and theatre alongside engineering. Through exploration, learning and performance, the Brunel Museum is inspiring the local and international community.
The Thames Tunnel watercolours were acquired by the Brunel Museum at auction in 2017, due to the generosity of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, V&A Purchase Grant Fund and Friends of the National Libraries. They combine technical maps and artistic painting to depict the construction of the Thames Tunnel. This archive has made a wonderful addition to the engineering museum.
Despite being known as the largest and most famous construction site in the world, the Thames Tunnel encountered disaster and heroism along the way. This series of drawings depicts a young Brunel in a diving bell and inspecting damage inside a tunnel by lantern light. The collection of thirty drawings, described as the most significant Brunel collection to enter the public domain, are now renowned for their fusion of beauty and technical accuracy. They depict the construction of the 1,200 feet long Thames Tunnel, which took place between 1825 – 1843. The tunnel runs beneath the River Thames in London, connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping. Though it was originally designed for horse-drawn carriages, it was predominantly used by pedestrians and eventually developed into a tourist attraction.
The illustration of this construction offers an insight into the development of an incredible design, considered to be the beginning of modern tunnelling, which lastingly transformed city life. The tunnelling shield was inspired by the shipworm that eats through the wooden timbers of ships, protecting its head with a hard shell. The technical and artistic pieces depicting this were prepared or overseen by Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), during the peak of his career as an innovative civil and mechanical engineer. Marc invented the tunnelling shield (patented in 1818) which created support for the excavating face with the intention of protecting the workers. He was also assisted by his famous son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806 – 1859), alongside other talented draughtsmen in the Brunel office.
Although the Thames Tunnel watercolours have altered the landscape of our cities and therefore the lives of city dwellers, they have never before been on display. This series of technical watercolours was stored in a family album for nearly two hundred years. Securing this archive was an incredibly important moment within the history of the Brunel Museum.
Thanks to a recent successful crowdfunding campaign and generous support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Brunel Museum is looking forward to bringing these extraordinary illustrations out of storage and on display.
A major improvement programme is underway, aiming to offer level access throughout and advance the exhibition area in the Engine House. The Brunel Museum Reinvented project will revamp an important site of international heritage significance whilst continuing to value the historical associations with the Brunel family. The Thames Tunnel watercolours have helped them to embark on this exciting journey.
View all images available in our archive from the Thames Tunnel Archive at the Brunel Museum collections
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