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A watercolour design for the construction of the Thames Tunnel, part of an archive sold at Bonhams for £160,000.

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The family archive of engineering and architectural drawings and designs for the projects of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, helped by his now more famous son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had been offered in 14 lots last November and sold for a total of £224,500. The principal attraction was a series of designs, watercolours and other material relating to the construction of the tunnel from 1825-43, which sold for a hammer price of £160,000.

It has emerged that the buyer of the latter – comprising 30 drawings - was the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, south London, based at the site south of the Thames which was originally the engine house and the shaft intended as the Grand Entrance Hall.

Funding for the purchase came from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund, V&A Purchase Grant Fund and Friends of the National Libraries.

Robert Hulse, director of The Brunel Museum, said: “Securing the Thames Tunnel Archive is one of the most important moments in the history of the museum. A hundred and ninety years ago, here in the Thames Tunnel, we half drowned Isambard Kingdom Brunel. But we also launched him.

"This is his first project, and today, Brunel’s drawing pad is our launch pad for a major building programme: a new gallery and a new museum for these beautiful drawings. A Scheduled Ancient Monument that tells a very modern story.”

The Bristol Brunel museum

Meanwhile, the SS Great Britain Trust in Bristol has confirmed it also bought some 40 “outstanding plans, diaries, drawings and photographs” by Sir Marc Brunel at the same Bonhams sale for its new Being Brunel museum.

They were bought with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of National Libraries.

All will be made available for public view in the months ahead and several will be featured as part of Being Brunel, the new national museum celebrating Isambard Kingdom Brunel which open on March 23.

Items include a watercolour design for Sir Marc’s steam-powered sawmill at the Royal Naval Dockyard at Chatham which was installed in 1812-13 and depicts just two attendants in a mill operating eight timber-cutting saws.

Rhian Tritton, director of interpretation, collections and education at the SS Great Britain Trust, said: “This design illustrates beautifully the high noon of the industrial revolution and the emerging era of mass production. It is one of a magnificent archive of plans and drawings that speak volumes about Sir Marc’s talent for invention.

“Perhaps most revealing is a series of drawings relating to Sir Marc’s time in the United States in the late 1700s, surveying navigation of the Mohawk River. Until now we have had no objects in our collection relating to this period in Sir Marc’s life, so it’s fantastic to be able to expand our understanding in this way.”

Also newly acquired is a ‘Design for a Bridge across the Neva at Petersburg’ which is said to have attracted praise from the Czar Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, although never secured the funds to be built.

“The gothic feel of this particular design shows Sir Marc’s versatility to work in a variety of architectural styles,” added Tritton. “But the real charm is in the detail, with a boat pictured sailing through the central arch. This shows us that Sir Marc was not just about the technical, but created drawings and designs that were delightful in their own right too.

As reported in ATG No 2325, a collection of 850 items relating to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his father Marc was also donated last year for The Being Brunel museum under the Cultural Gifts Scheme.