The Brunel Service
The following three lots were presented to the celebrated engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel on the evening of Friday, 17 January 1845 at the Albion Tavern. The evening's celebrations and the magnificent silver-gilt testimonial were described in detail in The Morning Post, 23 January 1845, p. 7.
'On Friday last a sumptuous entertainment took place at the Albion Tavern, on the occasion of presenting to Mr. Brunel, the engineer to the Great Western, Bristol, and Exeter, Bristol and Gloucester Railway, and other great public works, a testimonial of the high appreciation of his services. The testimonial is of very beautiful workmanship, and consists of a centre-piece and four accompanying ornamental dishes for fruit or flowers, with six saltcellars, all of silver-gilt, in the style of Louis XIV. The value of the testimonial is upwards of 2,000 guineas, and the subscriptions were limited to the sum of ten guineas from each subscriber. The centre-piece consists of a magnificent candelabrum, surmounted by a beautifully designed group of figures representing on the base of the plinth rising from the pediment between brackets, Science, Genius and Invention aiding Commerce, whilst around the base are groups representing the four Seasons. Elaborately wrought scrolls spring from the curved sides, supporting the candelabra for containing twelve lights. The costly and chastely-designed ornament, which was executed by Mr. B. Smith of Duke Street, Lincoln's Inns Fields, measures thirty-four inches in height, is thirty inches square and the weight of it is about 1,500 ounces. The flower and fruit dishes [lot 847] are of triangular form, each being twelve inches in height, and fourteen inches in diameter. They have very rich scrolls, with groups of figures round the pillars, supporting baskets, exquisitely designed, and weigh together 750 ounces. The six saltcellars [lot 836] are of a massive and highly-wrought character, circular in form, with very rich feet, composed of figures riding on dolphins, the weight being about 100 ounces.'
Following the cloth being removed, the testimonial was exhibited and the assembled guests gave a great cheer. A toast was raised to Sir Isambard Brunel and tribute was given to him for his great achievements in the field of railway construction and engineering. In answering the toast, Brunel was said to have been greatly touched and acknowledged the presence of many who had worked with him and helped him during his many projects.
The testimonial stayed in the family following Brunel's death in 1849, however the main centrepiece was melted sometime before 1868 to help pay for the cost of the memorial window to Brunel which was raised in Westminster Abbey in his memory. R. A. Buchanen in Brunel: the Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, London, 2002, p. 227, records the melting of the centrepiece quoting Brunel's descendent Lady Gladwyn.
Brunel was born into a family of engineers. His father, Sir Marc Brunel (1769-1849), was a renowned civil engineer. Isambard joined him in 1823 on the Thames Tunnel as the resident engineer. He had a great capacity for hard work, at one time working on the tunnel for ninety-six consecutive hours. Perhaps his first great solo piece of work was his design for the proposed bridge across the Clifton gorge in Bristol. Brunel then worked on a number of docks schemes and in 1833, he was appointed an engineer to the Great Western Railway. It was the work he did for the railway which established him in his profession, perhaps most notably the Box tunnel. He also worked on a number of schemes abroad. However, it was the Atmospheric Railway which was nearly his downfall. The system failed and almost ruined Brunel, who was only saved by the intervention of Sir Daniel Gooch. He achieved great fame through his designs for the great ocean-going steam ships such as The Great Western and The Great Britain, launched in 1838 and 1843, respectively. Bearing in mind the date of the maiden voyage of The Great Britain, it is possible that this service was presented on the completion of its construction. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the design and execution of The Great Eastern, which was in construction from 1853 to 1858. Brunel's health was failing during the construction of The Great Eastern and, although he was present during her first sea trials, he died soon after on 15 September 1859.