Robert Howlett was one of the leading professional photographers of the mid-1850s and a partner of Joseph Cundall at the Photographic Institution in London. In 1856 the partnership produced a series of portraits of Crimean War heroes commissioned by Queen Victoria, while Howlett photographed the frescoes of the new Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace; he produced studies of actors in seventh-century costume, made landscape views of the Valley of the Mole and rustic cottages in Surrey, and photographed groups of Derby Day racegoers that William Powell Frith used as studies for his 1858 painting of the same subject. Howlett also made fine photographic reproductions of the photographs of the moon taken by Warren De la Rue, and in 1858 experimented with a new landscape lens perfected by Andrew Ross. His last exhibited works were architectural studies taken with this lens in Rouen in 1858.
Howlett is perhaps best known for a series of photographs of the construction of the steamship Leviathan (later renamed Great Eastern), which appeared as engravings based on his photographs in a special issue of The Illustrated Times in January 1858.
Following the report of Howlett's death in November 1858, his friend Robert Hardwich suggested that his death was likely to have been caused by exposure to the dangerous chemicals commonly used by photographers of the period.