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A buoy caught in the paddle of the steamship Great Eastern

Oil paintings

Object connections:

Collection Oil paintings, Fine art
Gallery locationNot on display
VesselsGreat Eastern (1858)

Object details:

Object ID BHC3381
Description The painting records an incident on the ‘Great Eastern’ when a buoy was caught in the paddle of the steamship 'Great Eastern'. The buoys were being used as markers during the attempted recovery of cable lost overboard. Crew can be seen on the paddle frame trying to release the buoy. This event probably occurred during the laying of the transatlantic cable by the ship. In this dramatic scene the silhouette of the ship is lit by the moon as it looms out of the darkness. A number of figures are shown involved in the attempt to free the buoy trapped in the paddle steamer. The artist was in charge of the cable paying-out machinery on the voyage. The ‘Great Eastern’ steam ship, launched in 1858, was the third and last of Brunel’s major shipbuilding projects. It was built at the London yard of John Scott Russell and Company in Millwall and was initially known as the ‘Leviathan’. There were many problems in both building and launching the ship and it was not afloat until January 1858 when it was renamed the ‘Great Eastern’. The project bankrupted Russell and Brunel suffered a stroke and died soon afterwards under the strain of the venture. The public impact of the launch was enormous, she was cheered by huge crowds and praised in the press. However, even during her trials she had a major setback when a heater attached to the paddle engine boilers exploded and killed six firemen. The ship only survived because Brunel's new construction method of dividing a ship up into compartments with watertight bulkheads limited the extent of the damage. Brunel died very soon after hearing of this disaster. Despite the brilliance of Brunel’s design there were very few places in the world with docks and harbours large enough to cope with a ship of the ‘Great Eastern’s' size. So the ship couldn’t sail on the long routes that Brunel had planned. In addition to this, though safe, passengers disliked the rolling of the ship in the Atlantic storms. So in 1864, the ‘Great Eastern’ was sold for a fraction of its cost to a cable laying company and was used to lay the first telegraph cable to America. The ‘Great Eastern’ was laid up in 1874 and finally broken up in 1888. This painting records an event during its cable laying service. The artist was initially assistant chief engineer of the cable-laying aboard HMS 'Agamnenon’ when she laid the first trans-Atlantic cable in 1857-58. Later he was chief engineer aboard the ‘Great Eastern’ when she laid the next trans-Atlantic cable in 1865-66. This painting is therefore of great interest as it is based on an eye witness account. See also BHC3380, BHC3381, BHC3382 and BHC3383 for two more scenes of the 'Great Eastern' by the same artist and BHC4252 for a view showing passengers on its deck.
Date made circa 1865

Artist/Maker Clifford, Henry
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Materials oil on canvas
Measurements Frame: 638 mm x 560 mm x 55 mm;Painting: 405 mm x 330 mm
  • A buoy caught in the paddle of the steamship Great Eastern (BHC3381)
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