Photograph

Sappers putting together Captain Fowke's design for a canvas pontoon boat

1861 (photographed)

Department of Science and Art of the Committee of Council on Education

Height: 22.7 cm paper, Width: 29 cm paper

E.1150-1989 PDP

Photograph, South Kensington Museum, Sappers putting together Captain Fowke's design for a canvas pontoon boat, looking north-west in the gardens towards perimeter brick wall and fence, albumen print, 1861

A mounted sepia-coloured photograph of a group of soldiers in uniform assembling a canvas covered pontoon structure with ribs. A collapsed version of one of the pontoons rests nearby. A large tree and fense are visible in the background.

Photographs and photographers were present from the very beginning of the V&A's history and the Museum has an extensive collection of images from the 1850s through to the present which documents the construction and development of the V&A and the South Kensington site. Originally collected by the National Art Library as part of a programme to record works of art, architecture and design in the interest of public education, these topographic and architectural views were valued as records and as source material for students of architecture and design. As well as being crucial records of the history of the V&A, and an important element within the National Art Library's visual encyclopaedia, these photographs are also significant artefacts in the history of the art of photography.

Captain Francis Fowke (1823-65) was an architect with Department of Science and Art and responsible for designing the early galleries and courts erected at the South Kensington Museum(later the V&A) between 1851 and 1865. His boss, Henry Cole, the first director of the Museum (1808-82), described him as ‘a man of science, possessing a fertility of invention which amounted to genius’. Fowke’s inventions, which at times succeeded brilliantly in combining practicality with wackiness, included a military fire-engine, a folding camera, a portable India-rubber bath (an indispensable accoutrement for the discerning traveller!), a travelling scaffold (presumably for purposes of construction rather than delivery of capital punishment…) – and a collapsible military pontoon. This is one of a series of photographs documenting the testing and construction of the pontoon. Fowke first exhibited his canvas pontoon at the 1855 Paris International Exhibition but it wasn’t until 1860 that testing began in earnest. On Friday 9 March Fowke delivered a lecture ‘On Military Pontoons, with suggestions for their improvement’ at the Royal United Service Institution. Henry Cole was sitting in the audience. The lecture was subsequently published in the Institute’s journal. Cole’s recorded in his diary on 25 June 1860: ‘Fowkes Pontoons tried on the Pond for the first time’. Cole probably refers here to the small pool (or water tank) in the Museum grounds. Cole’s diary reveals that he was present at the Serpentine in Hyde Park on 2 July, where the pontoon bridge was given its first public demonstration. ‘Experiment very successful with Volunteers & Royal Engineers’, he wrote approvingly. A print - 'Experiments with Captain Fowke’s pontoon bridge on the Serpentine, Hyde Park' - was published in the Illustrated London News (11 August 1860). Photographs capture vividly the Encyclopedia Britannica’s description of Fowke’s pontoon design as ‘a folding open bateau, made of waterproof canvas attached to sliding ribs, so that for transport it could be collapsed like the bellows of an accordion and for use could be extended by a pair of stretchers’. In 1861 Fowke sent to the War Office ‘documents and drawings explanatory of my canvas pontoons’, including 6 copies of his lecture and 4 sheets of photographs. He later arranged for the transport of a canvas boat and 6 pontoons to the Tower to be forwarded to the Military Storekeeper at Chatham. It is unclear if Fowke's pontoon design convinced the military authorities. Fowke died suddenly on 4 December 1865. Inventive to the last, Cole eulogised before a gathering of the Society of Arts on 8 December 1865: ‘Captain Fowke, to my mind, was solving the problem of the decorative use of iron, and, by appreciating the spirit both of the Gothic and Renaissance architects, was on the threshold of introducing a novel style of architecture, when, alas! death, at the early age of 42 years, has cut short his promising career’. Adapted from the blog post: 'Tales from the Archive: Captain Fowke's Pontoons' by Nicholas Smith, Archivist, V&A Museum, posted 5 February 2014.

Location: Prints & Drawings Study Room, level H, case X, shelf 601, box G

View this object on the V&A website