18 days, 125 years #buildingpassions

The last time I ran a countdown on this website was for the 100th anniversary of John Wolfe Barry’s death in January 2018.

This one is for the 125th anniversary of the first opening of Tower Bridge to the London public on 30 June, only eighteen days away.

I was hoping to publish my forthcoming book about JWB, his family and close friend Henry Brunel, son of IKB, by now. It will happen by the end of September latest.

The good news is that I have had more time to adjust my text to address a broader readership and write more about the famous Brunel family. While the Barrys rightly got the credit for Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, they couldn’t have achieved this without the legacy and contribution of others.

In addition to the Brunels the book covers Augustus Pugin and a little on his father, from whom he inherited his incredible gothic drawing talents. It also looks at William Arrol’s contribution to the building of Tower Bridge and the more structurally impressive Forth Railway Bridge.

Which shows that there are stories behind stories behind stories. Meeting recently with former work colleagues, providing the ‘back story’ to key issues was one area we felt had been part of our career learning.

The trick is to find the key stories, dig up enough relevant detail and communicate this to your intended audiences.

How (not) to review (parts of) a book you refuse to reach

This is new for me but I needed to blog about a book I refuse to read. The title and image refers to a famous ad about a beer ‘refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach’,

Let’s imagine that a well-known politician has just launched a book about a dozen characters from Victorian Britain. For context, the politician has right of centre views and is identified with his passionate arguments for a ‘No Deal Brexit’. It is possible that he may have a biased approach to history?

Coincidentally, two of the characters he includes in his book feature in my forthcoming publication, though not as prominently in my case.

One of these is Queen Victoria, about whom much has been written and put on our screens of late. Difficult to be objective possibly?

The other of more immediate interest to me is the architect and designer Augustus Pugin. My book will look closely at his working relationship with Sir Charles Barry in the building of the New Palace of Westminster. Others have already researched and written about this, and a new, long-awaited biography of Barry may eventually appear by the end of this year.

Not wanting to give away my conclusions before publication, let’s just say that I attempt to provide a balanced view between the two extremes presented by Pugin’s and Barry’s sons in the later 19th Century after their fathers had died. One end of the scale suggests Pugin should get all the credit for this iconic structure, the other end goes for Barry. Somewhere in the middle seems more sensible, but like politics that doesn’t always prevail.

Hence my keenness not to read where Mr X stands on things, if indeed this is mentioned at all …

Self-publishing: your help needed!

I decided a while back that I would self-publish my forthcoming book on the Brunel and Barry families.

This has meant foregoing current earnings to spend time writing and there is no guarantee how I will do with my first (and possibly only!) book.

I have also spent money on an editorial assessment and buying image rights, plus I am committed to further payments for editing, proofreading and design and marketing costs. Since I don’t know what sales will be like, it’s difficult to estimate future income from publication. This also depends on the cover price and whether I market it only as an e-print or also as a hard- or softback.

That being said, the people I am writing about were very familiar with the concept of risk. Isambard K Brunel’s father Marc was thrown into debtors’ prison as poor cashflow held up his ground-breaking projects. It was only the threat of him returning to the old enemy France that precipitated action at the highest levels to release Government funds. Sir Charles Barry and his son Edward Middleton Barry were consistently at loggerheads with Parliament over delayed payments for building the New Palace of Westminster.

So, it would help me greatly to know what interest there might be out there for this book. The current favoured title is “Barry, Brunel and sons:
Builders to the British Empire”. My only concern is there is too much alliteration going on in it. What do you think? Tell me in a comment below.

To get a flavour of the book please look at the content of this website – it develops from the main focus here on John Wolfe Barry, to a wider scope looking at his father, brothers and close relationship with Henry Brunel, hence brings in the latter’s famous father IK and grandfather Marc. It also makes connections between Victorian architecture and engineering and modern day structures such as the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in the UAE.

P.S. The illustration of Big Ben is made from a photo I took of it at night time before the current renovation works. Another Barry structure!

The value of Parliament

The British Houses of Parliament have been in the news lately because of the laborious process for leaving the EU.

This process was clearly set up to discourage any state from doing a Brexit, Grexit or Frexit. Perhaps call it Nexit to be clear? The British people just want a clear decision to avoid current uncertainty.

As I watched the debates in the House of Commons last week I couldn’t help but admire the chamber in which the Members of Parliament sit, assuming they can find a spare place. It was deliberately designed by Charles Barry senior to be cosy, at the express wishes of the 19th Century incumbents who feared it would look vast and empty during an average poorly attended session!

Once completed by Edward Middleton Barry, the New Palace of Westminster would see numerous debates and committee sessions, including an inquiry into building a bridge across the adjacent Thames further downriver next to the Tower of London. One of the expert witnesses was Sir Charles’ other son John Wolfe Barry by then a respected civil engineer, who reassured MPs that despite vociferous opposition from some local commercial interests, the proposed bascule bridge would be a huge benefit to road traffic and a minor hindrance to river traffic. Tower Bridge still operates on this premise over a century later.

The benefit of hindsight ….

Back to school nerves

As I write this I am heading back home from school.

It is one I attended as a teenager and of which I have mixed memories, hence some nerves on my arrival earlier today.

When there I never appreciated the beautiful old building in which we had assemblies and were taught. Too busy surviving as a confused teenager. Now I returned as an alumni who is fascinated by the building’s architect Charles Barry junior.

My final year subjects were history, French and economics. The first two were strong personal preferences and because I wasn’t allowed to do maths with them (shocking but true), I opted for economics which my older brother had recommended to me.

I continually regret not having done maths after age 16 and this in part inspired me to work later in life in maths education policy. An achievement of which I am proud is that we managed to convince the English Government of the importance of as many teenagers as possible doing post16 maths.

I did meet the head teacher but we didn’t discuss education. As it turns out the school is celebrating 400 years since its foundation as a place for poor scholars to study. Part of the celebrations was a lecture a fortnight back by Caroline Shenton on Sir Charles Barry, who like his son had been surveyor to the vast Dulwich Estate. During today’s research I took a photograph of an original 1830 letter of reference from Edward Cust allowing Barry senior to gain his position. Cust had previously chaired the selection panel which had chosen Charles to design and build the seminal Travellers Club in London. He would go on to be one of the judges who selected Barry’s design for the New Houses of Parliament, declaring no personal interest in the outcome.

Such was the way of the world and it still continues to this day. Who you know is more important than what you know. I don’t agree with it but would be foolish to ignore the benefits.

Iconic 19th Century structures: the Eiffel Tower

As I write this post I am in a Paris Hotel enjoying a few days in the French capital.

Of all the iconic 19th Century structures in the world, including Big Ben and Tower Bridge credited to the Barrys, for me the Eiffel Tower stands out the most. It is the symbol of Paris, arguably France, somewhat ironic given the temporary nature of the original iron tower built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris by Gustave Eiffel, as well as the hostile reception from many quarters.

Eiffel’s company had won a competition to build a 300m high metal structure on the site. This was achieved rapidly and systematically using standardised components creating a mathematically stable tower. The essential designs were made by engineers but an architect was needed to beautify the structure and add floors for visitors.

Despite a unique achievement the reaction of many was dismay at the perceived ugliness of the tower and a campaign to tear it down began. Fortunately this never succeeded and we still can admire the structure in its original completeness. In deed 7 million visitors come each year making it the most popular paying attraction in the world.

When John Wolfe Barry was completing Tower Bridge during the same period but over a longer time span, he also attracted criticism from his profession, this time for concealing the metal matrix under cladding.

Which shows that you can’t please everyone and might as well do what you think is right.

Purveyor of country house upgrades to the aristocracy

Sir Charles Barry established a reputation amongst the British aristocracy for upgrading their country houses in the 19th Century.

His route in was through his design of the Travellers Club in London (see my recent photo), a pivotal building in the history of British architecture. He successfully married his own design preferences with the combined tastes of the elite Club members including the Duke of Wellington no less. This produced a highly admired Italianate structure adapted from its Florentine and Roman influences to suit British culture and climate.

Dukes and Earls came flocking in his direction with commissions and this was further boosted by Barry’s successful bid to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after they were destroyed by fire in 1834. This became his major lifetime work, but he still managed to keep other clients satisfied with his redesign advice. Highclere Castle, Cliveden House and Dunrobin Castle all still stand today as examples of his influence.

This all explains why he was given the single honour of being buried in the aisle of Westminster Abbey at a funeral in 1860 attended by the good and the great.

His sons would never achieve their father’s status. However, I think that John Wolfe Barry deserves the most credit for maintaining the family hallmark of structural excellence, though having moved slightly out of Sir Charles’s shadow into civil engineering. There he established himself by completing Tower Bridge, less an architectural feat and more a triumph of structural and mechanical engineering.