Samuel Charles Brees was born probably in Great Britain in 1809 or 1810. There is no record of his parents' names. He married Ann Taylor; the date and place of their marriage are unknown. They had two sons and two daughters.
Apart from the fact that the name Brees is of Dutch origin, nothing is known of his background and education. In the late 1820s he served an apprenticeship with the London architect Henry E. Kendall. In 1830 he trained as a civil engineer in Bristol under G. W. Buck and Robert Stephenson, and spent seven years employed as a railway engineer and surveyor. His most notable work was designing the greater part of the London to Birmingham line. Between 1837 and 1840 he published three technical monographs on railway construction. In an age when professions were less rigorously defined, he described himself variously as architect, civil engineer and surveyor. In his spare time he drew and painted, and between 1832 and 1837, while resident in Birmingham, had several landscapes accepted for exhibition at the Royal Academy and the Society of British Artists.
In September 1841 Brees signed a contract with the New Zealand Company for a three year appointment as a principal surveyor and civil engineer, at an annual salary of £600, plus allowances. Brees embarked on the Brougham on 2 October 1841, accompanied by his wife, three children and a servant. They arrived in Wellington on 9 February 1842.
During his term of office Brees was based in Wellington and was responsible for continuing the work of his predecessor, William Mein Smith, surveying the Karori Road and the hills surrounding Wellington Harbour. He oversaw the completion of the initial Wanganui and Manawatu surveys. In 1843 with Te Kaeaea he led an exploratory journey to southern Wairarapa through Upper Hutt and the Remutaka range, and prepared the preliminary subdivisions of these areas.
Brees carried out the administrative work of supervising a large team of surveyors, and, being a hard worker, was frequently in the field himself. Because the surveying method imposed on him by the New Zealand Company was totally unsuitable for New Zealand's rugged terrain, his men protested and he complained regularly, but in vain, to Colonel William Wakefield, the company's principal agent. His relationship with Wakefield, who behaved in a peremptory manner towards Brees, and with the survey staff, became hostile, as those in the field took matters into their own hands, and devised their own equally fallible systems for dividing up the land.
By August 1844, six months before Brees's contract was due to expire, the New Zealand Company was in financial difficulties and no longer able to pay him. Throughout his period as principal surveyor he had given as much of his spare time as possible to his favourite leisure activity of recording his surroundings in pencil and watercolour. The ending of his employment freed him to devote more time to painting, while he settled his affairs and arranged for his family's return passage to England. He had produced a substantial portfolio of views of all the areas he had visited, particularly scenes in and around Wellington. These works would normally have become the property of the New Zealand Company, but the company waived its claim to them in the expectation that Brees would publish the sketches and be somewhat compensated for the loss of income he had suffered through the early termination of his contract.
On 8 May 1845 Brees, with his wife, now four children, and a servant, sailed on the brig Caledonia for London. There, in 1847, Pictorial illustrations of New Zealand was published and excited much interest. Subsequent editions were published in 1848 and 1849. The volume consists of engraved illustrations of North Island scenes with the introduction and descriptive captions to each view written by Brees. The engravings were competently executed by a little known English artist, Henry Melville, who improved on the artist's sometimes clumsy figures, without altering his professional exactness in recording landforms and buildings. In London between 1849 and 1851 Brees exhibited a much admired panorama of Wellington, which consisted of enlargements of his original sketches.
On his return to London in 1845 Brees had resumed his former profession. He later practised in Brighton. In 1851 he went to Australia. He died of heart disease on 5 May 1865 on board La Hogue, off Blackwall, London, after a voyage from Sydney with his family.
Although Samuel Brees's works are characterised by flatness and lack of clarity, he left an accurate pictorial record of the colonists of his time, as well as glimpses of Māori life, which have ensured him a place among the significant early New Zealand artists.