[Click on thumbnails for larger images and additional information]
In 1866 Dudley was appointed as the ‘official artist’ at work on Brunel’s Great Eastern under the direction of Captain James Anderson. His task was to record in the form of an illustrated book the minutiae of the voyage, charting in detail the technical processes, life on board, the movements of the ocean, departures and arrivals and (it was hoped) a successful outcome. This was to be observed as the ship set about retrieving the cable that had been laid (and broken) in 1865.
The circumstances in which Dudley took up this employment is not known, although it is quite likely that he gained the job through his association with the chromolithographers Day and Son, with whom he had worked on the memorial to the Royal Wedding and other publications. It is possible that the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company approached William Day with a proposal to employ an artist and produce a book, but it is far likelier that the publisher initiated the deal, negotiating with the Company with the aim of gaining access to the voyage. This seems to have been the order of running, an arrangement outlined in several letters, written in May of 1865, between William Day and R. A. Glass, the Managing Director of the Telegraph Company. Along with other business arrangements to benefit his organization, Day requests that the Company should ‘afford’ his artist ‘every facility … in the production of the necessary views and details for illustration’; he also undertakes the entire risk of publishing, and retains the copyright for all subsequent editions (letters reproduced on atlantic-cable.com)
Clearly Day and Son regarded the book as commercially viable, and intended to make money out of it. The publishers were always looking for projects to showcase their vivid chromos, and commemoration of an epic journey was a worthy and impressive cause. It was likely to attract a large audience with a taste for both adventure and science; it celebrated the Victorian version of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America (then emerging from the trauma of the Civil War); and it asserted the idea of the two nations’ technological superiority over their European competitors.
To realise this project, Day engaged Dudley to accompany the crossing and produce colour illustrations, while the text would be written by W. H. Russell, The Times’s war correspondent, and with whom the artist had earlier collaborated on The Wedding at Windsor. Dudley’s approach to his representation of the journey, as with his charting of the marriage, was painstaking. As the voyage progressed he produced a series of 65 detailed watercolours (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and on his return twenty-four of these were converted under his superintendence into chromolithographs which drew on the expertise of Day’s technicians.
Left to right: (a) The Great Eastern. (b) Preparing to grapple (the broken cable). [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
Dudley’s chromolithographs are vivid and detailed representations, depicting each stage of the journey. The Great Eastern shows the vessel sailing under escort on 23 July 1865 and Preparing to grapple (for the lost cable) records the epic process by which the broken line was retrieved from the ocean bed. These are atmospheric images, emphasising both the ship’s monumental size and the conditions of sea and sky. His skill as a painter of marine subjects is especially evident in his treatment of brooding skies and dramatic chiaroscuro, a strategy that invokes the Romantic imagery of Turner and the menace of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Dudley’s seascapes capture this sense of danger, and we should not forget that crossing the Atlantic in a paddle-steamer (albeit one which also had a propeller and sails), was still an extremely hazardous venture.
Left to right: (a) Splicing the cable. (b) The forge on deck. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
He is also a sympathetic chronicler of life on board, presenting well-formed figure compositions – and a great improvement on his earlier designs – in which the workmen are shown Splicing the cable or operating the gigantic iron machinery. Far from straightforwardly journalistic, these images cast the voyage in terms of a titanic struggle between nature and man, with technology as the intermediary between them. The effect is idealistic rather than journalistic, mythopoeic rather than matter of fact. This note is sounded in the Title-Page, which shows dozens of sailors turning a huge capstan as they weigh anchor, and again in The Forge on Deck. Celebrating the common man in the manner of the idealised labourers in Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1852–65, Manchester City Art Gallery), Dudley’s compositions project a triumphant version of Britain’s hearts of oak as they toil in service of the (economic) empire. The implication is that all difficulties can be overcome through the application of sheer effort; though celebrating Capital, Dudley represents the physical energy, the currency of the Industrial Revolution, that drives endeavour forward and makes The Great Eastern into a floating manufactory.
The Atlantic Telegraph is thus figured as an elaborate visual tableaux, a pictorial narrative which exceeds its brief as a record and constructs the voyage as an affirmation of political and economic power, scientific superiority, and imperial values. Dudley’s montage is an alternative to Russell’s factual account, and it seems likely, as Day intended, that the book was purchased primarily for its dynamic illustrations. These were described by an early commentator as ‘spirited’ (Field, p.411) and as ‘drawings in the best style of chromolithography’ (The Popular Science Review, 1866, qtd. atlantic-cable.com); inspected at the middle-class fireside, their combination of exactitude and heroic idealism made them ideal material for family consumption, appealing to children (especially boys) as much as to the adults. On the high seas, Dudley tells us, modern British heroes are toiling to make the future.
- Robert Dudley: A Biographical Introduction
- Robert Dudley as book-cover designer
- Submarine Telegraphy Timeline
- The Laying of Submarine Cable — The Triumph of Brunel's Great Eastern on 27 July 1866
- The Atlantic Cable (lithograph)
Russell, William Howard. The Atlantic Telegraph. London: Day  [26 chromolithographs; binding].
Field, Henry Martyn. History of the Electric Telegraph.NY: Scribner, 1866. 1901; rpt. Bath: Kingsmead, 1970.
White, Gleeson. English Illustration: The Sixties, 1855 –70. 1897; rpt. Bath: Kingsmead, 1970.
Last modified 18 November 2013