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Marc Brunel painted this watercolour in 1835, at a happy time, when both his family and business affairs were thriving. But the story of his Tunnel is full of twists and turns.
In November 1825, Marc Brunel, together with his son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had begun to dig the first tunnel under a river anywhere in the world. Marc had already made history by building, and then sinking, a huge shaft in the soft Rotherhithe earth. Now began the dangerous business of cutting a way below the river to Wapping.
The next three years were eventful. Money was always short, the miners went on strike and the tunnel suffered a major flood. The Rotherhithe curate preached 'just judgement on the presumptuous aspirations of mortal men'. However, the workings were cleared, and a grand banquet was held in the Tunnel with triumphal music provided by the band of the Coldstream Guards. Tunnelling resumed.
In 1828 there was a second major flood. Calamity followed calamity. Isambard was seriously injured. The money had run out. The tunnel was bricked up. The poet Thomas Hood suggested that racks should be fitted in the Tunnel to create a wine cellar. The Tunnel had become 'The Great Bore'. Under the strain, Marc suffered a heart attack.
However, by 1835 his fortunes had changed again. After lengthy negotiations with the government a new loan was agreed. An improved shield was installed and tunnelling began once more. Contemporary drawings of the Tunnel show the Thames crowded with tall-masted ships, sending a clear message to investors: a bridge is not feasible; a tunnel is the only solution. This watercolour, however, tells a different story. A proud Marc Brunel has painted not for would-be investors, but for his family. In fact he has painted his family as well as his Tunnel.
The jacketed figure in the rowing boat bears closer examination. To be sure, he has no cigar, but the hat is a very tall and the profile and posture is unmistakable. Marc has painted his son.
Isambard loved the river. He learned to swim in the Thames - one of the more dangerous games of a young man given to dangerous exploits. The family kept a boat at Rotherhithe, and we know from Isambard's diary on 21 December 1824 that he rowed to the family's banker in Chelsea, to get a cheque signed. He was, on that occasion, unsuccessful. In the watercolour, Isambard is being rowed. The rower is almost certainly William Hawes, whose brother, Benjamin Hawes married Isambard's sister, Sophie. Isambard and William were great friends. In their spare time they rowed and walked together a great deal. Their favourite jaunt was to catch the 4 o'clock morning stagecoach to Kingston, then row with the tide down to William's house in Lambeth.
The artist has made it harder to conjecture on the identity of the striking
black figure in the west tunnel. But because the figure is solitary, and walking
away from the viewer, artistic convention suggests this is Marc Brunel himself.
Sixty six years old, no longer a young man, Marc is quietly walking into the
distance. He has achieved much, but his son's fortunes ride high above him on
the tide. Another tunnel beckons Marc, and beckons the man, not the engineer.