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Brunel and the watchmakers

19 October 2007

Important letters which illuminate the cross-Channel friendship of two of the most remarkable families of the early nineteenth century have been acquired by the University.

The letters were written by Marc Isambard Brunel to Abraham Louis Breguet and his son Louis Antoine Breguet, the most distinguished watchmakers of their day whose workshop on the Quai de l’Horloge in the heart of old Paris was a magnet alike to the Tsar of Russia and the young Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Two of the letters (from 1820 and 1821) are notable for the warmth with which Marc thanks the Breguets for their hospitality to the young Isambard in the leisure moments allowed by his technical education in France.  He had certainly enjoyed devoting himself to profitable amusement, making use of the workshop facilities.  Marc expresses his opposition to the dominating presence of Latin and Greek in educational thought and his belief in useful knowledge.  By 1821, we find him seeking Abraham’s advice about entering Isambard for the École Polytechnique.

We sense that Marc had been longing for an opportunity to visit his native land 

We do not know when the friendship between the two men began.  The earliest letter is from Marc to Abraham and dated 4 October 1814, not quite four months after the abdication of Napoleon, whose imperial eagle and title linger on in the watermark.  We sense that Marc had been longing for an opportunity to visit his native land.  Writing from the coast, he announces that he is heading for Paris with a party of friends and notes that he will need a tailor and shoemaker on arrival.  He asks Breguet to arrange accommodation for him.  It is a brisk letter but suggests established familiarity.  Perhaps they had met in 1793 when Marc visited a Paris teetering on the brink of revolutionary mayhem.

As both Marc and Abraham belonged to a network of scientific and technical friendships, there were numerous individuals who could have brought them into correspondence.  What is more, Abraham had well-established links to business associates and customers in Britain and had cultivated those links in person.  These often international connections were strengthened by periods of exile.  Marc fled to the United States in 1793 and remained there until 1799, at which time he moved to Britain.  Abraham took his family to his native Switzerland for two years.

The letters present an engaging and unofficial portrait of the Brunels

The letters demonstrate the web of connections in action.  In 1814 Marc announces that he is likely to visit the technically-minded social and educational reformer, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld; in 1820 he asks whether the editor of a French newspaper is respectable enough to be allowed to use one of his inventions; and in 1821 he reports that he has given the French engineer Navier a letter to allow him to view machinery at Chatham Dockyard.

The letters complement three more already held in the Brunel Collection.  They present an engaging and unofficial portrait of the Brunels: for example a triumphant Marc announces that he has managed the household and had the home painted while the ladies have been abroad.

Were it not for the present day friendship between the Breguet family and a descendant of the Brunels, Madame Stella de Rosnay, it is highly likely that these letters would not have been made available to researchers and it is with gratitude, therefore, that we acknowledge the generous and public-spirited assistance in their acquisition of Madame de Rosnay and her sister, Lady Thomas.

Michael Richardson/ Special Collections   

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