Four years ago I was working at the HQ of the BSI Group in Chiswick, London.
For those of you who don’t know, BSI stands for the British Standards Institution and is the guardian of the Kitemark plus many international product, process and people standards.
I’d happened upon this contract-based employment which wasn’t far from where we lived. But I knew BSI well from my previous research on John Wolfe Barry and of course I couldn’t resist looking into their archives. I also found out that they had just started awarding a medal in JWB’s name to honour key stakeholders who help produce standards.
This was all impetus enough for me to resurrect my past focus and start applying for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John. I submitted the completed application at the end of 2015 and my last update post was a year ago.
Fast forward over three and a half years since I started. Yes, it takes that long for things plaque-related to happen!
I am on the verge of believing that a plaque may really be in the offing before the year is out …
With this in mind, I’ve started preparing for the launch of both my new book, Building Passions, and the unveiling of a plaque commemorating Sir John Wolfe Barry’s life. The big prize is if both can take place on the same November day.
This in my final post in a series looking at a project I’m planning to undertake about a specific architectural style and its local communities.
In my last post I described the role of the Belgian architect Victor Horta in creating a unique ‘modern’ style in Brussels at the very end of the 19th Century. There followed a highly active period prior to the start of the First World War where other architects followed his example.
Horta’s style was somewhat disparagingly called ‘noodle’ or ‘whiplash’ by critics. This is because he used strong visual symbols based on nature within many aspects of it. More importantly, he perhaps unknowingly, trod in the footsteps of both the traditionalist ‘Arts & Crafts’ movement in England, and the ‘modernist’ approach starting to emerge particularly from the Chicago school of architecture in the USA. His was a complete solution to a client’s design brief covering every single aspect of a domestic and/or work residence using a range of materials and solutions.
Other architects in Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Finland, Scotland, Spain and the Baltic States drew courage from this radical new approach. It became known as ‘Art Nouveau’, ‘Moderne’, ‘Jugendstil’, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Secessionist’ to name a few terms. I particularly like the last one as it best conveys the idea of a break from the past.
In Latvia which was then a part of the Russian Empire, a frenetic period of activity took place for a decade or so after 1899. As a result, the capital Riga has become a World Heritage Centre for the extent of its architecture reflecting this time and style. There is a beautiful museum describing the buildings and key architects, one of whom stands out for me: Konstantins Peksens.
How does any of this relate to Sir John Wolfe Barry, civil engineer?
Probably not very much as he was from an earlier generation and clearly wasn’t an architect like his father and two of his brothers. However, he was in touch with communities: his greatest civil engineering achievement Tower Bridge has resonated with the people of London, in deed the world, for almost 125 years since it was completed.
So, I contacted English Heritage last week to see how things are progressing with my Blue Plaque application for Sir John Wolfe Barry.
It seems that the owner of the building where Sir John died is fine in principle so once planning permission is given then hopefully we will have our plaque.
It looks more and more as if this will only happen in 2019, hence we may well miss the centenary year of JWB’s death. However I’ve already blogged in anticipation of this highlighting 125 years of Tower Bridge next year.
Once I get a date for the actual unveiling of the plaque I will spread the message as it would be good to have a few people there to witness it. In preparation I’ve found this website where you can order your own blue plaque: perhaps one day I’ll get one for myself in anticipation of my passing into history. Just need to persuade someone to fix it up when I’m gone …
I applied for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry at the end of 2015. It’s a long process which requires evidence and research on the individual concerned and the buildings linked to them.
I get occasional updates from English Heritage as to progress and am still optimistic that something will happen by the end of 2018, the centenary year of Wolfe Barry’s death. If I hear any news I’ll blog about it of course.
If the plaque has to wait until 2019, that’s not too bad as Tower Bridge will be celebrating 125 years since its completion in 1894. I believe there’s at least one book in the offing to commemorate this and I assume it will give due coverage to Sir John as the lead engineer.
As mentioned before, there has been plenty of celebration of engineering in this bicentenary year of the Institution of Civil Engineers which is also the UK Government’s Year of Engineering. There’s also been a great video campaign by the Royal Academy of Engineering to promote careers in the sector to young people. Finally, Roma Agrawal’s book BUILT is doing well and she is planning a version for young children, to help explain the stories behind structures and point out that while architects often get the credit for designing buildings, there are many others involved.
It’s sixteen days until the 22 January when we commemorate the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death.
In a small gesture I will visit his window in Westminster Abbey which looks down on the grave of his father, Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Palace of Westminster.
Sir John himself was buried in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey. I once tried to find his grave but failed so will have another go, even though the cemetery’s website doesn’t list it at all. I hope it’s not been removed!
ICE’s bicentenary celebrations have kicked off as has the Year of Engineering. Roma Agrawal, a chartered structural engineer, is launching her new book BUILT in early February and we’re just waiting to hear about the launch of ‘This is Engineering’, a campaign to promote the engineering profession to wider audiences of young people and their parents. I’m also hoping for a Blue Plaque on the house where Sir John died in Chelsea.
If after all this activity you still can’t work out why engineering and construction are important sectors of the global economy, which require an ongoing supply of diverse, creative and pragmatic new talent, then perhaps we will all have failed!
I applied for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry in December 2015. The plan would be to commemorate the centenary of his death in January 2018 by having English Heritage put up a plaque on the building in Chelsea where he died. The process can take a long time due to the high demand for these in London where the scheme operates, and of course the current inhabitants need to be happy with a plaque.
I am sure there are many more worthy historical figures and you could argue that Tower Bridge is a commemoration of its own, plus there is special window in Westminster Abbey above the resting place of John’s famous father Sir Charles Barry, architect of the New Palace of Westminster.
I still remain optimistic that the plaque will be granted in 2018 even if not in time for the centenary which is only 3 months away now. It was short-listed in 2016 and it just seems too good an opportunity to miss.
The author of this website about Sir John Wolfe Barry is Nick von Behr. I am indebted particularly to research and writing by the late James Sutherland.
I populated this website with content in time for 22 January 2018, the centenary of John Wolfe Barry’s death. 2018 was the official UK Year of Engineering and the bicentenary of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the year structural engineer Roma Agrawal published her amazing book ‘Built’.
Originally I wanted to have some kind of commemoration in Westminster Abbey where a window can be found in his honour and his father is interred. More concretely I’m hoping an English Heritage Blue Plaque will be put up on the house where he died in London, but again this is a slow burner, having applied in December 2015. If it happens in 2019 this would coincide with the 125th anniversary of the opening of Tower Bridge.
I am now writing a book about the 19th-century Brunel and Barry families of architects and civil engineers. See my latest blog posts for how it is progressing.