Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by


Isambard Kingdom Brunel –

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  Brunel married Mary Horsley, who had entranced Mendelssohn a few years earlier. The composer was one of the many travellers who Brunel showed over the workings of the Wapping Tunnel. Mary Horsley’s father, William had bought the house on Kensington Church Street [different name] from the pianist Muzio Clementi in 1823.The composer Charles Edward Horsley, son of William, studied with Mendelssohn and Hauptmann.  His brother, John Horsley, destined to be a Royal Academician, became Brunel’s devoted friend, and painted this portrait.

 Mendelssohn’s sister remembered high- jinks and music in the Horsley residence, Felix playing with the future Mrs Brunel:

 [Fanny Mendelssohn] ‘They all looked very droll. Mary’s hair came down and they tore about in fine style. Mendelssohn and Sophy at my desire played the beautiful lovely Otteto; and the bass, thought perhaps you don’t believe it, was just as good as the treble…Mendelssohn engaged me before tea… he was very droll, in the highest spirits I ever saw, laughing at his own jokes, whirling round in pirouettes and all sorts of ‘follies’.

 Mendelssohn and Brunel had common ground-both of them were creating the future with an eye to the past-Mendelssohn my writing new music that paid homage to Bach and Handel, Brunel building the new classical temples and cathedrals-Stations, bridges and tunnels. According to Roy Strong:

By 1830 the flood of material whereby to recreate the past had become a torrent…in retrospect the only people to respond with buildings to match the change were the engineers and not architects.

 Clara Novello met Isambard Brunel at her father’s house on Tavistock Street. She found him charming. ‘Equally charmed, he sent her an invitation to sail in his new and fabulously large steam ship, The Great Eastern, on her trial. She could not know, and it was with real grief that she heard of his death ten days after the event. Then there were the well-known painters and sculptors: Landseer, who asked her to sit for him.’

The 'Great Eastern' lying opposite New Milford

Mendelssohn was far from the only foreign visitor to come to visit Brunel’s workings and offices. Britain had become the focus of a new ‘Grand Tour’; that of the industrial age, and the wonders of Stephenson, Telford, and Brunel were sought out by the new breed of amateurs  and ‘professionals’ taking the steam packet from Calais. Karl Friedrich Schinkel was one of these; he ‘made the tour’ of Britain in 1826, wondering at the marvels which Hamilton had brought back from Pompeii, and spending time with I K Brunel, both in his Office, and  going over the workings of the Wapping tunnel on the 6th June. He was particularly impressed with the younger Brunel’s sangfroid. “Er is sehr ruhig über den sichen guten Ausgang der Arbeit.“ The next day, he mourned the death of Carl Maria von Weber, in London to write Oberon for John Braham, and unable to withstand the climate.

 In The ‘Travels of Kerim Khan  published in Blackwoods Magazine (Vol. 54 No 337), the ‘Persian Prince’, taken over works at Wapping by Brunel, wrote:

 “It is impossible to convey in words the adequate idea of the labour that must have been spent upon this work, the like of which was never attempted in any country.”

 Such was Brunel’s perceived success in the artistic community, as one of them, that he would find his way into Sir Paul Harvey’s Oxford Companion to English Literature (1932), on the strength of his engineering. Indeed, the notion of the new industrial arts, as perfect accoutrements for the salon, grew apace. One commentator found ‘…a splendid engine of Stephenson’s, it would be beautiful ornament in a drawing room.’

 Of course, Brunel had to find ways of mastering large scale public events; in this he was treading similar ground to the new breed of ‘conductors’. The salient difference, of course, was if one of his performances went wrong, the outcome was dangerous and costly:

 ‘1857. Noon, 3rd November, After 3 years building on the Thames at Millwall, the Great Eastern was ready of launching. Watched by 100000 people, her designer IK Brunel stepped onto to the platform to direct the launching…Tugs pulled, hydraulic rams pounded, chains snapped, two workmen were killed. She moved, only inches, Three months later, with no visitors present, she was finally launched.’

 But, perhaps, Brunel’s most musical monument is the bridge which he built over the Thames at Maidenhead. When built, it was widest and flattest brick arch in the world, a record it still holds. However, perhaps its most extraordinary quality is its acoustic. The arch (know today as the ‘sounding arch’) is possessed of perhaps the most perfect echo-only accessible by those on the river, and walkers on the towpath. I cannot believe that this was an accident-Brunel was too good of a geometrist, and too aware of his history. No doubt he had experienced the ‘whispering gallery’ at St Paul’s Cathedral. Perhaps this was discussed with the composers that he met at the Horsley residence, with drawings and models. Not only was he building the perfect classical architectural principles into his buildings, but the acoustic finesse which Vitruvius had demanded in his Ten Books of Architecture written for Julius Caesar.

 Of course, this bridge came to be the ultimate symbol of the Romantic, Industrial age. It is the bridge which Turner would paint in 1844, in Rain Steam and Speed.