The SS Great Britain Trust’s new acquisition

25 June 2024

Blog

25 June 2024

Blog

The SS Great Britain Trust has recently acquired through a generous bequest an atmospheric watercolour painting of Brunel's steamship the Great Eastern.

The SS Great Britain Trust has recently acquired through a generous bequest an atmospheric watercolour painting of Brunel’s steamship the Great Eastern. The artist William J Bond probably painted the ship as it lay on the banks of the River Mersey when it was brought to Liverpool to be scrapped at the end of its career in the 1880’s.

The construction of the Great Eastern, Brunel’s third steamship was beset by financial woes and misfortune and the great engineer died only nine months after its launch in September 1858. Although then the largest ship in the world and luxuriously equipped, it was not a success as an ocean liner and the Great Ship Steamship company that operated it after its launch went into liquidation in 1864. The ship was put up for sale but did not reach the reserve price. It was rescued when a new operation, the Great Eastern Steamship purchased it for £25,000 when it was auctioned again. The new company directors included Daniel Gooch and Cyrus Field of the Atlantic Cable company and the ship finally found success laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1865, repeating the feat a further three times and laying another cable from India to Suez in 1869.

By the 1880’s the SS Great Eastern was up for sale, and ended she her career ignominiously in Liverpool as first a department store and emporium and then what its promoter called a ‘pleasure resort’ featuring a music hall and amusement arcade. She was finally sold for scrap in 1888 and after a brief stay on the River Clyde, she returned to Liverpool where she was grounded on the banks of the River Mersey where over two years she was slowly scrapped.

It is this melancholy sight that William Bond records in the painting; work appears to have only just begun, but a ladder is fixed to the side of the ship ready for workmen to start the work of dismantling her.

Born in 1833 in Knotty Ash Liverpool, W J Bond exhibited widely in both his home city but also at the prestigious Royal Academy. In later life his landscapes and seascapes were heavily influenced by J M W Turner and the dramatic cloud formation in the picture is reminiscent of Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, which featured another iconic Brunel work, Maidenhead Bridge.

This important acquisition was the result of a generous bequest; the Trust always welcomes the donation of historic items to its collection, and as a charity, the Trust relies on the generosity of supporters and their passion for the ship. By leaving a gift in your will, you are helping to conserve the SS Great Britain and her historic dockyard, caring for its Brunel and maritime history collections, and ensuring education and community outreach programmes make a difference to those in Bristol and around the world.

Whether an item related to Brunel or a financial gift, your contribution will ensure a lasting legacy securing the future of this vital site and its resources. If you would like to discuss further, please contact the Development Team on 01174 623 125 or development@ssgreatbritain.org.

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