Dreaming of Crystal Palaces….

Dreaming of Crystal Palaces, Acrylic on Canvas, 220x170cm, 2009-2010

Dreaming of Crystal Palaces….

This painting was inspired by the Great Eastern, a steam ship built in 1858 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Her tragic fate turned out to be inversely proportional to the grand ambition of its creator. Brunel, a pioneer in bridge construction and leader of the expansion of the railway system in 19th century England, took an early interest in long distance travel and thus a passion for ship-design. The Great Eastern was to be his crowning achievement.

She was designed to carry a cargo of goods and more than 4,000 people to India and Australia without the need to dock for fuel. This was a major challenge at a time when boats simply could not carry sufficient coal to transport their passengers to their destination without stocking up en route.

The Great Eastern would be the biggest ship the world had ever seen. Twice the length and over five times the weight of any previous ship, it would be the largest moveable object man had ever created. A length of 211 m was only surpassed in 1899 by the 215 m long Oceanic, and her gross tonnage only surpassed in 1901 by the Celtic. But most of all, unheard of at the time, the hull would be built entirely from wrought iron. It was a floating response to the Crystal Palace, the majestic building of glass and iron designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Construction started in the yard of the shipbuilder Scott Russell, based on the Isle of Dogs in London's East End. After four years of industrious labor, while plagued by financial setbacks and logistical nightmares, she was finally completed in 1858. The maiden voyage was ill-fated, however, and a mighty explosion crippled her. This proved too much for Brunel who died soon after in 1859 of a heart attack.

After significant repairs, she would then ply her trade for several years as a passenger liner operating between Britain and America. Commercial failure as a ferry led to conversion to a cable-laying ship across the Atlantic. The final indignity for the Great Eastern was when she finished her life of trade as a floating music hall in Liverpool before ultimately being broken up in 1889.

The only surviving witness of Brunel’s grandiose dream, her top mast, was purchased by Liverpool Football Club who were looking at the time for a flag pole for their Anfield ground. It still stands there today, at the Kop end.


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