Families in history and now #buildingpassions

I’m travelling to a family reunion in London to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday.

Families are important.

I write about two of them in my forthcoming book on the 19th-century Brunels and Barrys. The full title is “Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture”. The short title is ‘Building Passions’.

In the book, the two famous families of engineers and architects connect through John Wolfe Barry and his close friend and business partner Henry Marc Brunel. Their fathers were the great Victorians Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Barry, who were both Fellows of the Royal Society like their outstanding contemporary Charles Darwin. They also co-designed the 1851 Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace with Prince Albert, Joseph Paxton and others.

Families have roots and branches.

They come from somewhere and in most cases continue on, even if there are name changes along the way. Personalities appear, disappear and reappear through new generations.

This is all part of evolution and completely natural, in whatever way it may have first started.

The best families strive to work cooperatively with others for the wider good. This despite the temptation to care for their immediate lineage only.

In this way the world progresses and, we hope, avoids the pitfalls of personal greed and avarice that have become so visible today.

Half way there

I’ve written half my target number of words for my book on the 19th Century Barrys. The rest needs to be completed by mid-June latest.

One thing that changes as I add words to the draft is the title and structure of the book. It has now moved on from a central focus on Sir Charles Barry and his three architect/civil engineer sons, to a wider scope including the great Isambard K Brunel and his son Henry Brunel.

This makes for a better connection with the themes of family, recognition and building that run through the book, as well as allowing me to look even more closely at the relationship between architecture and civil engineering.

What, you might ask, is the connection between the Barrys and the Brunels?

John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel were close friends and business partners who lived and worked in the Brunel family home and offices in London for the first years of their civil engineering collaboration. Once John was married and children started arriving, Henry had to leave his parents’ house as a lifelong bachelor and hand it over completely to his friend. This can’t have been easy for him!

The fathers of each son knew each other and were both Fellows of the Royal Society. They had also worked together on designing a venue for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London which became known as the famous Crystal Palace. There is no evidence of any close personal or business relationship between them and this could be said to typify the traditional space between British architects and civil engineers.

The book will expand on the above and is currently due for publication by end September 2019. Fingers crossed!

On the trail of the Barrys

By Barrys I don’t mean Barry Manilow or Barry from Eastenders.

I do mean Sir Charles Barry and his sons Charles junior, Edward and John. They are the main characters in the joint biography I am writing of an atypical Victorian family.

Most of us associate the Victorian period with scenes from a Charles Dickens novel or with Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort Albert. For me it is inextricably linked to architecture (we live in a Victorian house even though it was built a few years after the Empress died) as well as the industrial and commercial expansion of the British Empire culminating in the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in the magnificent Crystal Palace.

That last structure brings together a few strands in the developing book. Sir Charles Barry sat on the planning committee for it together with Prince Albert and IK Brunel. His close collaborator on the New Palace of Westminster, Augustus Pugin, created an amazing display of medieval crafts which typified the Gothic Revival style he defended so vociferously against Greek classicists.

Once the Great Exhibition finished it was decided to move the whole structure to Sydenham Hill outside London, though now in a suburb in the capital aptly called Crystal Palace. To allow access to it a new high level railway station was built at the top of the hill to reduce the walk for visitors. There is some dispute whether Charles Barry junior or his brother Edward Middleton Barry was responsible for this structure since demolished, but certainly the subway from the station to the site of the palace is still accessible with its amazing vaulting and decoration.

Charles Barry junior did build the splendid new Dulwich College in the 1860s just down the hill from the Crystal Palace and shown in the above photo. I went to school there but never realised its architectural significance or link to the Barry family. Not even my best friend Barry knew this. If he actually existed that is ….