History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Henry Clifford
Great Eastern Paintings and Drawings

Henry Clifford painting at National Maritime Museum (1)

The steamship 'Great Eastern' off Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, July 1866
National Maritime Museum BHC3383
Creative Commons Attribution
(CC BY-NC-SA) licence

The third of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s shipbuilding masterpieces. At a time when the largest ships afloat were under 5,000 tons, Great Eastern had a designed tonnage of 18,914. Like the Great Western and Great Britain before her, the Great Eastern was a one-off. There was nothing else like her in the world. Yet she was considered a commercial failure, ending her career as a floating billboard before being scrapped in 1888.

The artist was a second engineer on the Great Eastern and painted numerous oils of the ship.

Here is another version of the same painting. While it appears identical at first look, there are differences in the details.

Atlantic Cable Expedition, 1866
David Kelsey Collection

Bright (1898 p 98) describes the scene of the painting above as:
S.S. “Great Eastern” approaching Heart's Content, Trinity Bay, in Completing the Laying of the 1866 Atlantic Cable.

The two-volume biography of Sir Charles Bright includes black and white reproductions of three of Clifford's paintings. Below is one of the illustrations from that book, a third variation of the same scene.

The Great Eastern Completing the Second Atlantic Cable

Henry Clifford painting at National Maritime Museum (2)

The steamship Great Eastern laying the first successful Atlantic cable
National Maritime Museum BHC3380
Creative Commons Attribution
(CC BY-NC-SA) licence

Artist: Henry Clifford (fl. 1857—94)
Date: 1865
Item No: BHC3380
Neg No: BHC3380

The Great Eastern, or Leviathan, launched in 1858, was much larger than any previous ship and was not equalled in size for another 50 years. She had both paddle and screw propulsion and was designed to carry 4000 passengers; but she made only nine Atlantic crossings before her conversion to a cable-laying ship in order to lay the first transatlantic cable from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1865 (a previous attempt having failed in 1858). This failed when the cable broke and could not be recovered, but a repeat attempt in 1866 succeeded to recover and complete the 1865 cable.

Below is a smaller version of the same scene, about one quarter of the size of the painting and perhaps a study or a rough for the oil shown above. Move mouse over the image to compare with the NMM painting; click on the caption for a larger image.

Move your mouse over me

A Cable Laying Ship
Atlantic-Cable.com Collection

Signed H. Clifford.
7¼ x 10½ inches (184 x 267mm).
A cable laying ship
with paddle wheels, six masts and four funnels.

Another small painting of the Great Eastern, similar in size and execution to the one above, has descended in the Clifford family to Henry's great-granddaughter, Jacy Wall.

Great Eastern
Image courtesy of Jacy Wall

Henry Clifford painting reproduced in Bright (1898)

Recovery of 1865 Atlantic Cable by S.S. “Great Eastern,”
From a Depth of Two Miles
At 0'50 a.m., on Sunday September 2nd, 1866.
(After the Painting by Henry Clifford.)

Although the present location of the original of the painting shown above is unknown, this watercolour in the Clifford collection at the National Maritime Museum is clearly the source for it:

The Great Eastern at night
National Maritime Museum PAG9926

Maker: Clifford, Henry [artist]
Technique: wash, black & grey
Height: 179mm (7")
Width: 253mm (10")

And this oil on canvas at the National Maritime Museum, although untitled, is also of the same scene:

Bow view of the steamship Great Eastern
National Maritime Museum BHC3382
Creative Commons Attribution
(CC BY-NC-SA) licence

Henry Clifford's fourth painting at the National Maritime Museum also appears to show this operation:

A buoy caught in the paddle of the steamship Great Eastern
National Maritime Museum BHC3381
Creative Commons Attribution
(CC BY-NC-SA) licence

Robert Dudley: Henry Clifford's Paying Out Machinery

Paying-out Machinery

Designed by Henry Clifford, the paying-out machinery used on the Great Eastern incorporated an automatic release mechanism and jockey wheels. The machinery had been designed to keep the cable taut as it paid out over the Great Eastern’s stern.
Creator: R. Dudley (artist): Day & Son (engravers). Date: 1865.
From Russell: The Atlantic Telegraph.

Image courtesy of IET Archives

See this article on the paying-out machinery on Great Eastern for a detailed description of Clifford's machinery, including period photographs.

Main page on Henry Clifford

Last revised: 19 December, 2019

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