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.
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.
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 ….
In my previous post I said I am writing a book about the famous 19th Century architect Sir Charles Barry and his five sons, of whom four became well-known in their own right.
Why am I telling this story?
Firstly, because I want to. That’s my prerogative as the author! It will fulfil my personal ambition ever since I started researching one of the sons (can you guess who?) many years back.
Secondly, because I think stories are great ways to communicate with people about things that may hit a chord with them. These can be very personal issues, or more likely because they empathise with certain characters and the good and bad times they may go through. It can also be for purely technical reasons e.g. they love trains so any book about them is bound to be an attraction (hint, mine will have some mentions of trains, but don’t get your hopes up if you’re a fanatic!).
Thirdly, because if people like this story then perhaps they’ll be interested in other ones that follow. This would be good for both me and them as writer and readers. Clearly it’s a relationship.
Last night I watched the new film about the character Mowgli from the famous Jungle Books created by the journalist and author Rudyard Kipling. For those who may not know the tale, Mowgli is a boy who was raised by wolves in the Indian jungle and is conflicted by his upbringing with animals and the fact that he is a human underneath. This is a fascinating paradox which the author explores expertly and weaves his magic in the form of a plausible story.
To my mind this is the essence of story telling, which I hope I can somehow reproduce through my writing.
I’ve decided to write a family biography of Sir Charles Barry the famous 19th Century architect and his sons who were architects, a surveyor, a civil engineer and a bishop.
This website is about the civil engineer Sir John Wolfe Barry. His brothers were Alfred (the bishop), Charles Junior (architect), Edward (architect) and Godfrey (surveyor).
The plan is to complete a synopsis and a few sample extracts to send off to agents in the hope there may be interest from publishers. If not then I will self-publish.
Why would people want to read such a book?
I hope because they are intrigued by the history of architecture and civil engineering and the structures associated with this family. Caroline Shenton has written two superb books about the Houses of Parliament for which Sir Charles Barry is best known. Alfred wrote a sanitised biography of his father. All of the brothers except Godfrey feature in various biographical compendiums and tributes from their professional colleagues.
Please contact me via @behroutcomes on Twitter if you can help in any way with interesting research or materials about the family and the things they built or people they engaged with.
As blogged before, next summer will mark 125 years since Tower Bridge was opened.
I’ve added a couple of extra pages to this site which is about the man who built the bridge. The first is on how John Wolfe Barry persuaded Parliament to approve the plans for a bascule bridge across the Thames. The second covers the pivotal role of William Arrol in manufacturing and installing the steel framework for the towers that supported the huge bascules. I will add further pages as we get closer to the date.
You can also keep an eye on Tower Bridge’s own plans at its Facebook page and via its Twitter handle @towerbridge .
At least one new book about the history of the bridge will be published, but in the meantime you can read Honor Godfrey’s excellent softback of 1988 through library loans or Amazon.
On 30 June 2019 many of us will be celebrating 125 years since Tower Bridge was first opened to the public.
More than a year ago I started putting content on this website about the builder of Tower Bridge with the aim of completing it by 22 January this year, the centenary of Sir John Wolfe Barry’s death. I was actually ahead of target.
So I’ll set myself another goal for the 8 plus months until we reach the end of June next year: add more content to this website specifically about Tower Bridge, but obviously relevant to what is already here. As I did with John Wolfe Barry’s biography, I will blog as I go along. Tomorrow I will start with the beginnings of JWB’s involvement with the project to span the Thames further east than had ever previously been achieved with a bridge.
Hope you come back to have a look.