The opening of Being Brunel, the new museum dedicated to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, has involved the collections team preparing previously unseen correspondence for display. This work prompted new questions to be asked about some of the letters which are held at the Brunel Institute. Questions also arose about the wax seals that remain attached to some of them.
In the 19th Century, wax seals were used for a number of reasons, including to show the recipient that a letter hadn’t been read, to provide information about the sender and to physically seal a letter cheaply; as sending a letter in an envelope doubled the cost of postage.
Throughout his life, IK Brunel used a variety of wax seals across his business and personal correspondence. Amongst the earliest of the seals we found depicted his initials ‘I B’, with the 'I' shaped like a shooting star or comet. Letters held in the collection show he was using this seal from 1822 until at least 1828. Later, in the 1830s, we see a seal with his full initials: ‘IKB’. In the late 1830s and 1840s, Brunel again returns to a seal which uses an ‘I’ shaped like a comet, over a ‘B’ – this time with the added motto ‘en avant!’; a French phrase which translates to ‘onwards!’.
IK Brunel’s seal, 1840s
Exploring these seals inspired us to have a closer look at others held in the collection. Comparing the correspondence of IK Brunel’s father, Marc Brunel, we found similar imagery – an ‘I’, again shaped like a comet, over the initials ‘MIB’, for Marc Isambard Brunel. Looking at the stationary of Isambard Brunel junior, IK Brunel’s son, we found envelopes stamped with a familiar image – again, the ‘I’ shaped like a comet, surrounded by the motto ‘en avant’.
In the late 18th and 19th century, the comet or shooting star was a popular image. It symbolised prosperity, was associated with rulers and also had connotations of magic. The Great Comet of 1811, which was visible for around 260 days, had an enormous cultural impact on authors, artists, scientists and the general public.
We can’t say for certain the particular significance or personal meaning that the comet symbol held for the Brunels, but it is fascinating to trace the continuation of this imagery in the correspondence of father, son and grandson.
Envelope used by Isambard Brunel in 1878, plus close-up of stamp
Author: Aoife Kurta, Documentation Assistant