A deck scene on the 'Great Eastern'

(Online update, December 2019) This is a rare oil painting of a deck scene on board Brunel's 'Great Eastern', the largest paddle-steamer in the world. The view looks forward, up the starboard side, and until May 2017 it was identified as showing the ship during the first leg, from Sheerness to Valentia, Ireland, of its1865 transatlantic cable-laying voyage. It has now been pointed out that the ship's fourth (of five) funnels - here shown as the closest on the left - was removed for the 1865 voyage and replaced with a cable tank. The elegant passengers - including well-dressed ladies - either promenading on deck or relaxing in deck-chairs are also inconsistent with a cable-laying voyage. It therefore has to be concluded that the ship is shown on one of its earlier transatlantic crossings in passenger service (1860-63) before being sold to Daniel Gooch in 1864 for conversion as a cable-layer.

Robert Dudley - the artist - illustrated the Army and Navy Almanacs, but he is best known for his pictures of the 'Great Eastern' as a cable-layer. The first transatlantic telegraph cable from Ireland to Newfoundland was laid by the 'Agamemnon' in 1858 but failed after three weeks. In 1865, after its conversion for repeating the task, 'Great Eastern' left Valentia on 19 July but on 2 August the cable it was laying broke after 1200 miles and sank 2½ miles into the ocean, with all attempts at recovery being unsuccessful. After this loss the ship returned to Ireland, arriving there on 17 August, but made a successful second attempt to lay a new cable in 1866. This voyage also saw recovery of the 1865 cable, which was spliced in mid-ocean and completed to Newfoundland as a second connection.

Dudley was among the dignitaries and journalists invited to travel on the ship to record the 1865 cable-laying voyage in watercolour sketches for the ‘Illustrated London News’, which he sent back by mail packet. Later, 26 of his original drawings from the trip were turned into lithographs to illustrate William Howard Russell’s account of the 1865 operation, ‘The Atlantic Telegraph’, published by Day & Son in 1866: the Museum also has most of these. Some of the same sketches were also worked up into finished oil paintings for Cyrus W. Field, American promoter of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and many of the oils are now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

This makes the present picture rather a puzzle, since - while dated 1868 - it appears to show the ship in its pre-1864 existence, when owned by the Eastern Steam Navigation Company, with which neither Dudley nor Day & Son had a known connection. It suggests that Dudley either saw the 'Great Eastern' before conversion - for which, though possible, there is no other evidence - or that he reconstructed its pre-cable appearance from sketches made in 1865. Neither option suggests who he might have painted such a large and impressive work for, unless perhaps intended speculatively for Field but not sold to him. We are grateful to Stewart Ash for pointing out the need to reidentify the view as of the ship in its passenger-carrying days.

Object Details

ID: BHC4252
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Dudley, Robert Charles; Dudley, Robert
Vessels: Great Eastern (1858)
Date made: circa 1860; circa 1865 1868
People: Russell, John Scott
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Purchased with the assistance of the Society for Nautical Research Macpherson Fund.
Measurements: Painting: 1016 mm x 1422 mm; Frame: 1360 mm x 1790 mm x 135 mm, Weight: 50kg

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