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Sir Marc Brunel - New Insights

Sir Marc Brunel painting

Sir Marc Brunel plans, drawings and photographs to be made publicly available for the first time by the SS Great Britain Trust

An archive of some 40 outstanding plans, diaries, drawings and photographs by engineer Sir Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, has been secured by the SS Great Britain Trust in Bristol.

The Trust already holds one of the world’s finest maritime and Brunel collections and the new objects will become part of that collection housed in the Brunel Institute, alongside the SS Great Britain.

The objects were acquired at Bonhams’ Fine Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs sale on 15 November 2017 having previously been held in family archives for over a century. They were bought with the generous support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of National Libraries. 

All will be made available for public view in the months ahead and several will be featured as part of Being Brunel, the new national museum celebrating Isambard Kingdom Brunel which opens at the end of March 2018.

Items include a watercolour design for Sir Marc’s steam-powered sawmill at the Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham which was installed in 1812-13 and depicts just two attendants in a mill operating eight timber-cutting saws.

Rhian Tritton, Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education at the SS Great Britain Trust,  said: “This design illustrates beautifully the high noon of the industrial revolution and the emerging era of mass production. It is one of a magnificent archive of plans and drawings that speak volumes about Sir Marc’s talent for invention. 

“Perhaps most revealing is a series of drawings relating to Sir Marc’s time in the United States in the late 1700s, surveying navigation of the Mohawk River. Until now we have had no objects in our collection relating to this period in Sir Marc’s life, so it’s fantastic to be able to expand our understanding in this way.”

Also newly acquired is a “Design for a Bridge across the Neva at Petersburg” which is said to have attracted praise from the Czar Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, although never secured the funds to be built.

“The gothic feel of this particular design shows Sir Marc’s versatility to work in a variety of architectural styles,” added Rhian. “But the real charm is in the detail, with a boat pictured sailing through the central arch. This shows us that Sir Marc was not just about the technical, but created drawings and designs that were delightful in their own right too.

“We are thrilled to have these new objects in our collection and are very grateful to the National Heritage Memorial Fund for its support.”

Sir Peter Luff, Chair of NHMF, said: “An innovator whose expertise and knowledge shaped the landscape of our nation, Sir Marc Brunel’s achievements deserve to be better known.  By stepping in to help the SS Great Britain Trust and the Brunel Museum secure these pieces of Brunel’s archive, the National Heritage Memorial Fund is ensuring his legacy is explored and shared more widely.”

The objects are currently being cared for in the Brunel Institute and will be prepared ready for public viewing during 2018.




Notes to Editors

About Brunel’s SS Great Britain and Being Brunel

Brunel’s SS Great Britain is Bristol’ s number one visitor attraction, as voted by the public on Trip Advisor. It is home to the world’s first great ocean liner, the SS Great Britain, and the Brunel Institute, which houses one of the world’s finest maritime and Brunel collections.  At the end of March 2018, Being Brunel will open to the public - a new national museum telling the hero engineer’s extraordinary story through never-before-seen personal possessions, as well as interactive exhibits and audio-visual experiences. The new museum is located alongside the SS Great Britain at her home in the Great Western Dockyard, Bristol.  For more information visit

About the National Heritage Memorial Fund

The National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) helps to save some of our most-loved treasures from being lost forever. The NHMF was founded in 1980 with the passing of the National Heritage Act as a memorial to those who have given their lives for the UK. A resource of last resort, the NHMF provides financial assistance towards the acquisition, preservation and maintenance of some of the UK’s finest objects and landscapes, from trains to artworks, wildlife havens to manuscripts. For more information visit

About Arts Council England/ Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund

The Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund is a government fund that helps regional museums, record offices and specialist libraries in England and wales to acquire objects relating to the arts, literature and history.

It was established at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1881 and continues to be part of its nationwide work. The annual grants budget, currently £750,000, is provided by Arts Council England (ACE). Each year the Purchase Grant Fund considers some 200 applications and awards grants to around 100 organisations, enabling acquisitions of over £3 million to go ahead.

For more information visit

About the Friends of the National Libraries

The Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) is a registered charity that was founded in 1931. Its purpose is to help libraries in the United Kingdom acquire books, manuscripts and archives, in particular those that might otherwise leave this country.

Since 1931 FNL has helped in the purchase of printed books, manuscripts, records and archives of historical, literary, artistic, architectural, musical or suchlike interest. Libraries which can receive grants include the British Library, the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales and any university, county, local authority and other library, record office, museum or gallery to which the public has access, and which in the opinion of the Trustees, constitutes a proper repository for a proposed acquisition. For more information visit