History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Robert Charles Dudley (1826-1909)
We know Robert Charles Dudley mainly through his work as an artist and designer, which engaged him for almost all of the second half of the 19th century. Of special interest here are his sketches, watercolours and paintings of cable expeditions, made on four occasions between 1865 and 1870.
Biography: Born in Hackney, London, and baptised at St John, Hackney, on 27 September 1826, Dudley was the child of a well-to-do family. His father, Charles Stokes Dudley of Clonmel, County Tipperary, an Irish provision merchant, writer and philanthropist, was noted on Robert’s baptismal record (and also on his marriage certificate) as “Gentleman”. Charles’s wife was Sarah Dudley, née Haycock, and they had thirteen children in all. [family tree listing at Geni]
On the 1851 census, Robert Dudley at age 25 was a lodger at 95 Stanhope Street, St Pancras, and listed his profession as “Architect.”
On 4 August 1859 at age 32, Robert Dudley was married in Liverpool to Amelia (Amy) Hunt, aged 26. Amelia’s father Andrew Lucas Hunt was also an artist [Marriage register], as was her brother Alfred William Hunt. In 1857 Alfred had given Robert a watercolour of a coastal scene inscribed “To R. Dudley from A.W. Hunt” [Auction record], and this perhaps indicates Dudley’s interest in the sea, which was to be the subject of so many of his paintings from the 1860s into the 1890s. On the 1861 census Dudley is listed as “Artist in Painting”.
After their marriage, the Dudleys lived at 32 Sussex Place, Kensington, London, where they had two children: Guildford, born 1860, and Robert Ambrose, born circa 1867. A letter to Henry Clifford dated April 1868 has the Kensington address, but by the time of the 1871 census the family had moved to 31 Lansdowne Road in Notting Hill, where Dudley lived until his death on 28 April 1909 (mis-stated on many art history sites as 1900). Probate was granted on 2 July 1909 to his widow Amelia and her sons, with Dudley’s estate valued at £9,388 17s 6d.
In its issue of 30 April 1909, the British trade journal The Electrician published this obituary:
The photographic reproduction of Great Eastern mentioned in the obituary is the one shown below.
Amelia Dudley continued to live at Lansdowne Road until her death on 25 December 1921, and her sons retained the house as their residence until the deaths of Guildford (20 November 1933), and finally of Ambrose (16 November 1951).
Today the Notting Hill house, the right-hand member of the semi-detached pair shown below, is a listed building described as:
The death in 1951 of Robert Ambrose Dudley, aged 84, ended this line of the family, as neither he nor his late brother Guildford had children. Ambrose’s estate was £55,830, and in his obituary in its issue of 9 February 1952, the Evening Echo reported that:
The property in Ireland, at Clonmel in Tipperary, the birthplace of Ambrose’s grandfather, had been purchased by Robert Charles Dudley in 1908. [The Irish Times, Saturday June 6, 1908, p.2.]
Life and Work: Of independent means, and without the necessity of having to work, Robert Dudley was free to pursue a varied career in the arts. The first published mention of his name is in the 10 March 1849 issue of the Illustrated London News. A classified advertisement signed by Robert C Dudley and Wm. W Deane as Hon. Secs. promotes an exhibition of “drawings, models, &c., in connexion with architecture” at the Gallery of the New Society of Painters in Water Colours, 53, Pall Mall in London.
In the early 1850s Dudley was principal draughtsman for the architect Matthew Digby Wyatt, and was later engaged by Day & Son, a leading firm of chromolithographers, to illustrate many of their lavish picture books. He was Special Artist for the Illustrated London News for many years, and was also a well-regarded book cover designer. The Victorian Web has a page showing some of his books, together with a detailed list.
At the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, Dudley was “superintendent of the restorations and monuments, and principal draughtsman” for the Mediaeval Court, which was designed and arranged by M. Digby Wyatt.
In 1857 Dudley was “the youngest of the art directors” at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, for which he designed the card of thanks sent by the executive committee to all those who had contributed [Morning Post 17 April 1858]. The Report of the Executive Committee noted that “The arrangement of the Sculpture in the Main Hall was specially confided to Mr. Robert Dudley.” He also produced many “drawings on wood” to illustrate the commemorative book “Art treasures of the United Kingdom from the Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester.”
Dudley worked extensively in watercolours, and also produced many oils, showing 47 paintings between 1865 and 1891 at London venues, including 24 at the Royal Academy and others at the New Water-Colour Gallery, Suffolk Street, and various exhibitions [Graves, A Dictionary of Artists].
His works occasionally come up for sale at auction today, and his cable-related paintings and watercolours are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York); the Smithsonian Institution (Washington DC); the National Maritime Museum, the Science Museum, the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (all London); Library and Archives Canada (Ottawa), and the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto). Images of all of these can be seen on the page for William Russell’s book, The Atlantic Telegraph.
As well as being described as the ‘Special Artist” of the Illustrated London News, Dudley was also mentioned by name in some of the reports on cable expeditions. Wood engravings based on his sketches appeared in the newspaper to accompany stories on the 1865 and 1866 Atlantic cables between Ireland and Newfoundland; the 1869 French Atlantic cable; and the 1870 cable from Porthcurno in Cornwall to Portugal.
While on the 1865 and 1866 expeditions aboard Great Eastern, Dudley made a large number of paintings of particular interest to undersea cable historians. Many of the ones from 1865 were reproduced as colour lithographs in William Russell’s book, The Atlantic Telegraph, published in early 1866 by Day & Son. Dudley also designed the cover for this book about the 1865 Atlantic Cable expedition.
Although by that time photography was reasonably well established, the only photographs of the 1865 and 1866 cable expeditions are of the machinery on board ship, and a small number of stereoviews with similar subjects. Dudley’s sketches, watercolours and oils are thus the only comprehensive pictorial record of the entire expedition. By kind permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Science Museum, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and Library and Archives Canada, over sixty of Dudley’s original paintings may be seen at the book page linked above.
A contemporary review of the Atlantic Telegraph book included these remarks:
A contact in January 2016 with a descendant of Robert Dudley’s sister-in-law led me to a 1933 article by another family member, Frank Hall Childs, who was married to Dudley’s niece Amelia. The article includes the text of a letter written by Dudley on 8 September 1866 to his sister-in-law Sophia Hunt. At that time he was again on board Great Eastern as Special Artist for the Illustrated London News, and he wrote the letter on the day that the ship returned to Heart’s Content after the recovery of the 1865 cable from the depths of the North Atlantic.
The article and letter were published in the August 1st, 1933 issue of the trade magazine Telegraph and Telephone Age, and give some insights into Dudley’s life and family at the time of the 1866 Atlantic cable expedition. Both are reproduced in full below.
Telegraph and Telephone Age, August 1, 1933
Life Aboard First Cable Steamship Great Eastern
By Frank Hall Childs, LL.B.
A recent news item announcing the death, at the age of 97, of a member of the steamship Great Eastern’s crew of 600 men who helped lay the Atlantic cable, and stating that only two other members of the crew now survive, prompts me to bring to public attention a letter in my possession, written by Robert Dudley, one of the reporters accompanying the vessel, a copy of which is appended. Mr. Dudley, whose photograph I have, afterwards became a noted London artist. He married Miss Amy Hunt, a sister of my wife’s mother, Sophia (Mrs. Edwin) Hunt, of Chicago, to whom the letter was addressed. My wife’s maiden name was also Amy Hunt, having been named for her aunt. Mr. Dudley has two sons, Guildford and Ambrose, who are artists now residing in London, the former being mentioned in the letter.
The first cable which ever spanned an ocean was laid in 1858, but it ceased to function after having been in operation about a month. I have a piece of that cable.
On July 23, 1865, the Great Eastern started from Valentia, Ireland, with the second cable. On August 2nd this cable snapped by overstraining, 1064 miles from Ireland, and after unsuccessful attempts to recover it, the Great Eastern returned to England. In July of the following year on Friday, the 13th, the Great Eastern again left Valentia with a third cable, and after a successful trip reached Hearts Content, Newfoundland, on the 27th. The Great Eastern left Hearts Content on August 9th to attempt the fishing up of the second cable which had broken the year before. On September 1st the second cable was fished up and spliced, and the Great Eastern reached Hearts Content again on the 8th with this additional cable, so that the two continents were connected by two working cables. It was on that date that Mr. Dudley wrote his letter in which he describes the termination of the trip during which the second cable was laid, and the intense moments when the broken cable of 1865 was successfully brought to the surface.
I have a badly worn copy of “Frank Leslie’s Atlantic Cable Pictorial” of eight pages containing an account of the laying of the first cable in 1858, and of the second cable in 1866. Unfortunately there is no date on the “Pictorial,” but its contents clearly indicate that it was published about August 1, 1866. It contains many woodcuts, and also the “ballad” beginning:
I quote from its sixth page in regard to the first speaking message over the cable, July 6, 1866: “The first speaking message from the shore to the vessel laying the shore end was an inquiry after the health of Mr. Dudley, the artist who had been engaged it making a sketch of the scene connected with the shore end. The question: ‘How is Dudley?’ was promptly sent, with the answer: ‘Dudley sleeps’.”
The autographs mentioned in Mr. Dudley’s letter, and which I now possess, are as follows: “Very truly your friend, Cyrus W. Field.” (Mr. Field financed the laying of the cable.) “Yours very truly, James Anderson, R.N.R.” (Commander of the Great Eastern.) “Yours truly, S. Canning,” (Engineer in Chief of the Expedition.) “Henry A. Moriarty,” (Staff Commander in Her Britannic Majesty’s Navy, assisting in all nautical observations and in the navigation of the ship associated with Captain Anderson.) “Yours truly, Willoughby Smith,” (Chief Electrician to the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company) “William Thomson,” (LL.D of both Oxford and Cambridge, F.R.S., Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, Consulting Electrician to the Expedition.) “Yours very truly, Henry Clifford.” (Engineer superintending the Machinery Department.)
Mr. Dudley’s letter is presented in full, not only for its historical value concerning the laying of the Atlantic cable but also as a contribution from the fine literary style of nearly seventy years ago when kinsfolk and friendships occupied so much of life’s interest. The letter is as follows:
Telegraph and Telephone Age, January 1, 1934
More About Artist Robert Dudley, Who Portrayed
Frank Hall Childs, of Pacific Palisades, California, whose article on “Life Aboard the First Cable Steamship Great Eastern as Told in a Home Letter by Artist Robert Dudley,” was published in the August 1 edition of Telegraph and Telephone Age, has received letters of congratulation from many readers who are or have been connected with the land telegraph and ocean cable companies. One of the most interesting of the letters was from Harwood Frost, of Chicago, Ill., from which Mr. Childs has forwarded extracts as follows:
The 1866 letter transcribed above, sent by Robert Dudley to his wife’s sister in America, gives a personal account of the recovery of the 1865 cable. In the Illustrated London News issue of 13 October 1866 he wrote up the story for the general reader and accompanied it with several illustrations:
In a story about Sir James Anderson, commander of Great Eastern for the 1865 and 1866 expeditions, the trade newspaper had published this image of the ship showing the scene after the loss of the 1865 cable:
The reproduction of Dudley’s painting shown in the illustration above was published by the British trade paper The Electrician; this advertisement is from the 1895 edition of the company’s Electrical Trades Directory:
The original painting by Robert Dudley was in the collection of Sir James Anderson and is shown below. In a letter to The Electrical Engineer Dudley provided further information about the details of the image:
Dudley evidently also made another painting for Sir James Anderson. This hand-lettered presentation certificate is in the archives of Telegraph Museum Porthcurno [PIC///152/] and describes a painting of the scene on the night of September 1st 1866 when the lost cable of 1865 was recovered. The location of the painting itself is not presently known.
As noted in Harwood Frost’s letter responding to Frank Childs’ 1933 article, Dudley’s eldest son Guildford had also worked in the cable industry, for the Eastern Telegraph Company. The company had a house magazine, The Zodiac, which published news of interest to its employees. In an issue believed to be that of April 1933, there appeared a full-page reproduction of one of Robert Dudley’s watercolours of Great Eastern. According to the caption, the scene is of the ship leaving Sheerness after loading the cable for the 1865 expedition. Too large to sail any further upriver, Great Eastern was also loaded at Sheerness for the 1866 and 1869 Atlantic cable voyages.
The National Maritime Museum has this oil painting by Dudley, “From Sheerness to Valentia,” showing the scene in June 1865 on board Great Eastern during the voyage to Ireland, where the cable laying would begin.
In 1868 Robert Dudley was on the Executive Committee for a “Banquet Held in Honour of Cyrus W. Field, Esq. of New York, in Willis’s Rooms, London, on Wednesday, 1st July, 1868.” He also designed the commemorative illustration for the event:
Also in 1868, Dudley accompanied his fellow watercolour artist Myles Birket Foster, on a “ramble through Brittany.” Foster had also done many drawings for the Illustrated London News in the 1850s, and his book of sketches from the trip, published in December that year, was dedicated to Dudley. [ILN 21 Dec 1878]
In 1869 Dudley sailed for the last time on Great Eastern, again as Special Artist for the Illustrated London News, and recorded the laying of the first French Atlantic cable. His first sketch for the newspaper, published in the edition of 26 June 1869, was of a similar scene to the 1865 view above:
Robert Dudley’s last work on cable expeditions for the Illustrated London News was in 1870, when he was at Porthcurno in Cornwall for the landing of the cable from Portugal. This was the last link in the cable to India, and also the inaugural cable for the Porthcurno station, which was opened that year. CS Hibernia commenced laying cable on 2 June and arrived at Porthcurno on 8 June 1870. CS Investigator laid the Porthcurno shore ends. Dudley’s sketches accompanied an article on the cable published in the Illustrated London News issue of 25 June 1870.
As well as making these sketches for the ILN, Dudley also painted at least five watercolours based on his visit to Cornwall in 1870 (see also the Postscript below).
The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has a watercolour originally catalogued as“Landing of a Cable End at Portcurno” ( PAJ3524: 344 x 525 mm, 13.5" x 20.7"). This is one of two watercolours from the collection of Robert Dudley’s fellow artist, friend, and cable engineer Henry Clifford, and was donated to the NMM in 1992 by the estate of Clifford’s grandson, Henry Dalton Clifford, who in his own 1975 catalogue had titled it “the shore end of the Atlantic cable being landed at Porthcurno, Cornwall.” As there were no Atlantic cables landed at Porthcurno at that time, this was obviously not correct—but neither was the Porthcurno location.
In November 2019 Stewart Ash examined this painting at the NMM, and after consultation with other experts determined that it was almost certainly not a scene of a cable landing. As a result of this research, the watercolour's description was amended and its title changed to “Boats and carts unloading a brig anchored at Porthcurno, Cornwall.” However, on a visit to Porthcurno in January 2020, Stewart further established that the topology shown in the painting is not that of Porthcurno Bay, so the exact location of the scene is presently unknown.
The NMM has a second watercolour by Dudley based on his 1870 visit to Cornwall. Dated 1871, and also from the Dalton Clifford estate, PAJ3428 has an updated description based on recent research and is now titled “Spaniards landing at Porthcurno after 1588, in reprisals for the defeat of the Armada.”
Another watercolour by Dudley of the landing of the cable to Portugal was described when sold at auction in 1995 as “Landing the telegraph cable at Porthcurnow, Cornwall, 2nd June 1870, England to Lisbon” (14" x 22"). No image of this painting is presently available, and its current location is unknown, but it seems likely that this is the same watercolour described in the 1894 catalogue of John Pender’s art collection as “Landing the Telegraph Cable at Porthcurnow, Cornwall, 1870, 14.5" x 22",” which was sold by Christie’s in 1897 as Lot 147 of the auction of much of John Pender's extensive art collection.
The second of Pender’s watercolours, a small sepia wash, was just 8" x 5", and is described in his catalogue as “Sir John Pender, G.C.M.G., M.P. at Porthcurnow.—Writing the first telegram to be sent by the British-India, Falmouth and Malta line, June 8, 1870, in the Telegraph hut.” A black and white reproduction of this scene appeared in the 50th Jubilee edition (August 1922) of The Zodiac, the Eastern Telegraph Company’s house magazine, together with a description of the scene:
As noted above, Pender’s extensive collection was dispersed at auction after his death, and the present location is not known of either of the watercolours listed in his 1894 catalogue.
A fifth 1870 watercolour is in the archives of the Atlantic Cable website. It is titled “Tol-pedn, Penwith”, and shows the rocky Cornish coast at Gwennap Head (a little over a mile to the west of Porthcurno) with a steamship offshore; this may be a ship of the cable fleet for either the Porthcurno cable to Portugal or the unrelated Scilly Islands cable, which was landed at Zawn Reeth a little later in June 1870:
One further cable landing drawing appeared in the ILN for 9 July 1870, and although uncredited, this must also have been by Dudley. The drawing accompanied an article on the Scilly Islands cable, which after numerous difficulties finally opened for service on 20 June 1870. Its landing point was at Zawn Reeth near Land’s End, a site about a mile further west from Tol-Pedn. This cable suffered many difficulties, and after a final break in 1877 was eventually diverted to Porthcurno.
The map above shows the Porthcurno cable station complex at the right with the approximate locations of Tol-pedn and Zawn Reeth to the west. This larger map has a key to all the marked locations.
In 1873 Robert Dudley was a guest at an “Anniversary Banquet given by Mr. Cyrus W. Field, of New York at the Buckingham Palace Hotel, London, on Monday, the 10th March, 1873, in Commemoration of the Signature of the Agreement on the 10th of March, 1854, for the Establishment of a Telegraph across the Atlantic.”
In 1875/76 Dudley was at Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. A watercolour titled “The Painted Bridge, Lucerne” is dated 1875; another titled “Tell’s Platz, Lake Lucerne” is dated 1876 and has a note on the back in Dudley’s handwriting describing the legend of William Tell and the historical context of the site shown in the painting. This watercolour was evidently owned by Dudley’s friend and fellow artist, cable engineer Henry Clifford, as there is a subsequent note on the back in Clifford’s hand, “Lent for Exhibition at the meeting of Tuesday 24 Feb 1885,” perhaps referring to the New Water-Colour Society. Clifford is recorded as a member of this society, and we know from his exhibition records that Dudley was also a member for many years.
In 1879, on the occasion of a celebration in New York of the 25th anniversary of Cyrus Field’s first involvement with the Atlantic cable project, the official record notes that among many other letters from abroad, one was received from “Robert Dudley, the English artist, who accompanied the Expedition in the Great Eastern, and took the sketches from which he executed the series of paintings which now adorn Mr. Field’s house.” These are the watercolours and oil paintings which Field subsequently donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the collection included all of the images used in William Russell’s book on the 1865 cable expedition, as well as many others.
In 1890, for the 50th wedding anniversary of Cyrus West Field and Mary Bryan Stone Field, an illuminated address was presented to the couple by their many British friends and associates. One of the signatories was Robert Dudley, and the document looks very much like his work, although this has yet to be confirmed. Compare this document to Dudley’s presentation certificate to Sir James Anderson in 1866, above.
Although Robert Dudley recorded no cable scenes after 1870 (that we know of), he continued painting and exhibiting oils and watercolours for most of the rest of the 19th century. He illustrated several more books, including Monthly Maxims in 1882 and King Fo, The Lord of Misrule in 1884, for both of which he also wrote the text, and created artwork for many Christmas cards.
Letters from Dudley dated 1895 and 1896 have details of the sale of a number of his paintings to George H. Frost of Plainfield, New Jersey, USA. George Henry Frost was married to Louisa Hunt, a niece of Robert’s wife Amelia, and from remarks in the letters the Frosts had visited the Dudleys in London at least once during that period.
Robert Dudley’s final connection to the cable industry was through his two sons, Guildford and Ambrose. As noted above, Guildford worked for the Eastern Telegraph Company as an “electrician” (the 19th century term for an electrical engineer); the exact dates have yet to be determined, although the August 1922 issue of The Zodiac noted that he was “on the retired staff of the Eastern Telegraph Company”. And Ambrose, who was also an artist (recorded as exhibiting portrait paintings at the Royal Academy in 1890 and 1891), provided artwork for a number of the Eastern group’s celebrations of various cable anniversaries between 1894 and 1922.
In 1894 Ambrose illustrated the program for one of the celebrations in London of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of submarine telegraphy with the Far East. Ambrose was one of an estimated 5,000 guests at the first of these events (although neither Robert nor Guildford Dudley are listed as attending). A number of historic cable items were on display for the edification of the guests, as well as:
There is no information as to the disposition of these drawings, and the only known illustration by Ambrose Dudley is this invitation to Sir John Pender, which was reproduced in the official book commemorating the events:
As described in Frank Childs’ 1934 letter above, Robert Dudley was the namesake and reputed descendant of the 16th century Earl of Leicester, and the names of his two sons (and by coincidence, that of his wife Amy) are also family names of that period. Perhaps as a tribute to both his father and his ancestor, in 1900 Ambrose Dudley exhibited this painting at the Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts MDCCCC: “Item 959: Oil Painting, Robert Dudley Esq., by Ambrose Dudley”. The location of this painting is not presently known.
In 1903 Ambrose illustrated the programmes for a "Dinner given by the Submarine Telegraph Companies at the Hotel Cecil, London, Thursday 28th May 1903", and a “Fete Given by the Submarine Telegraph Companies in the Gardens of the Royal Botanical Society, Monday 29th June”. Both events were part of the festivities at the International Telegraph Conference held in London that year.
Finally, in 1922 Ambrose created artwork for events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of the Eastern Telegraph and Associated Companies. He first produced this elaborate invitation, signed “A. Dudley” at the bottom left, requesting Sir John Denison-Pender to attend a presentation by the staffs of the Eastern companies on July 8th 1922:
Later that month his artwork appeared in the large-format programme issued for a series of events held at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Regent’s Park on July 24th. For this impressive document, Ambrose painted full-colour allegorical illustrations for the front and back covers, showing how the industry had matured between 1872 and 1922. He also made two interior sketches on the same theme, along with drawings of the cable ships Great Eastern and Lady Denison-Pender. The August 1922 issue of The Zodiac commented that “...Ambrose is a well-known painter, his allegorical designs, reproduced in colour on the programme, were very much admired.”
The official record of the 1922 event, a book published by the company and titled Fifty Years of "Via Eastern", does not have any of Ambrose Dudley’s artwork, but does include a monochrome reproduction of Robert Dudley’s 1865 oil painting of Great Eastern, which was presented by him to Sir James Anderson after the conclusion of the voyage. The book records both Ambrose and his brother Dudley as being on the guest list for the reception and fete at the Royal Botanic Society’s Gardens, Regent’s Park.
At least for the moment, except for occasional mentions in The Zodiac of Robert Dudley’s paintings of Great Eastern (see above, for example), this is the last record of the 57-year engagement of the Dudleys with the cable industry.
Postscript: In 1929, following the death of Sir John Denison-Pender, art objects from his London residence at 6 Grosvenor Crescent were sold at auction by Hampton & Sons. The catalogue included these two lots on page 22 under the heading:
Written in pen next to each lot are the prices realized: £1-0-0 for Lot 300 (one pound); and 16-0 for Lot 301 (sixteen shillings).
There is no further description of either lot, so the exact paintings included are unknown, except that Lot 300 is probably one of the other watercolours painted by Dudley on his visit to Porthcurno in June 1870.
Thanks to Julia Twomlow, Museum Director at Telegraph Museum Porthcurno, for the information on this auction.
Last revised: 31 January, 2020