Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) Son of the French-born civil engineer, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. He trained with the French clockmaker Louis Bréguet, and as clerk and engineer with his father, with whom he collaborated on the Wapping to Rotherhithe tunnel under the Thames. Isambard Kingdom suffered internal injuries on the job and had to withdraw from the work. While convalescing at Clifton near Bristol, he became interested in the problem of spanning the Avon Gorge. After his first efforts had been rejected by Thomas Telford, he went on to win the commission. Construction of the bridge started in 1836, but was not to be completed until 1864, after Brunel's death. Through his Bristol contacts, he was appointed Chief Engineer to the Great Western Railway in 1833. For this company he built the spectacular line and tunnels between Paddington and Temple Meads station in Bristol. He also conceived the idea of extending the connection from Bristol to New York by setting up a subsidiary, the Great Western Steamship Company, building two steamships for it. His last steamship, built in London, and completed in 1858, is considered to have over-stretched the technologies of the time. He was an active member of the building committee of the commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and a prominent member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, of which he was vice-president at the time of his death.
The engineer is shown wearing a frock coat, bow tie and waistcoat. Although the modelling is restrained, details, such as watch-chain and buttoned gussets on the trousers, indicate an interest in modern costume. Brunel looks to his right, and his weight is supported on his right leg. He holds a pair of compasses.
The pedestal of the statue is set into a radiating screen of striated masonry, creating a shallow niche. Stone benches project from the screen's podium. Behind the statue, a parapet is carried up for about 1 metre behind the figure. To either side of this, and crowning the screen are serpentine volutes decorated with stylised festoons; both pedestal and screen taper upwards.
Brunel died on 20 Sept. 1859. A meeting was held on 26 Nov., at the offices of Messrs Pritt and Venables in Great George Street, attended mainly by engineers, but chaired by the Earl of Shelburne, to consider a memorial to him. The instigator was J.St George Burke, who admitted that he had first thought of a joint memorial to Brunel and to Robert Stephenson, whose deaths had occurred within a month of one another. He understood, though, "that differences of opinion existed on the subject of a joint monument to such an extent that it would be impossible to carry the proposal into effect". He had already raised 500 guineas amongst his friends for the Brunel memorial, and his suggestion that contributions to the fund should be limited to £10 was agreed by the meeting. Burke declared a strong prejudice in favour of "a visible monument". "I would dislike Brunel scholarships", he went on, "and think nothing but tombs and statues really useful as mementoes of greatness". A memorial committee was then appointed, including amongst its members another eminent railway engineer, Joseph Locke, and the Marquess of Lansdowne, who seems not to have been present at this meeting.(Times, 28 Nov. 1859)
At a subsequent meeting of friends and subscribers, on 30 March 1860, Brunel's family was represented by the engineer's brother-in-law, the painter John Callcott Horsley R.A., known as "clothes-Horsley" because of his well-known opposition to art students drawing from nude models. On show at the meeting were "two model casts ..one intended to represent a full-length colossal figure on a high pedestal, in the act of unrolling a scroll, suitable alone for outdoor erection", and "a bust on an elevated pedestal with two full-length allegorical figures in front, suitable for indoor erection". The newspaper report does not name the sculptor of these specimens. Horsley let it be known that one member of the family had intimated to him that "the neighbourhood of the Canning statue", in the area which was about to be transformed into Parliament Square, would be "a very eligible site". He rejected a suggestion from the architect, Matthew Digby Wyatt, that Brunel himself would have wanted a monument in "variegated marbles", and insisted that the monument should be "of the gravest kind", something comparable to the monument in Kensal Green cemetery to Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. A majority voted in favour of a bronze statue in a public thoroughfare, and against a marble statue in St Paul's Cathedral. Over £2,000 had already been subscribed, and it was estimated that £1,500 would suffice for either of these two alternatives.(Times, 31 March, 1860)
A little more than a year later, the Brunel and Stephenson Memorial Committees came together for a combined meeting, on 14 June 1861. Here it was announced that statues of both of the engineers were to be placed in "the gardens attached to St Margaret's Church, Westminster", a term which once again refers to the Parliament Square area. The reporter for the Builder stated that it "has . finally been settled" that Carlo Marochetti should execute both of the statues. Marochetti was adamant about the statues being in bronze. The meeting was told that "if they were to be executed in marble, he would have nothing to do with them".(Builder, Vol.XIX, no.19, 22 June 1861, p.432)
It is likely that this announcement merely publicised an arrangement made by the statue committees some time back. Indeed, it is probable that by this time Marochetti had modelled, if not cast, both statues. An agreement seems to have been reached with the First Commissioner of Works, William Cowper, that the statues should be erected near the statue of George Canning, on the west side of what was about to become Parliament Square, adjacent to the Institution of Civil Engineers. Initially Cowper had had misgivings about this, and had suggested to Lord Shelburne that Trafalgar Square might be a better place for them, but he appears to have been won round (TNA Work 20/253). On 27 June 1861, Marochetti informed Cowper that the pedestals were "now ready and deposited near Canning's statue". (TNA Work 20/253) In the meantime, a third eminent engineer, Joseph Locke, who had been on both of his colleagues' Memorial Committees, also died, and Marochetti was commissioned to produce his statue. Permission was sought to place Locke's statue in the same patch as the Brunel and Stephenson. This was probably in early July 1861, when an appointment for Marochetti to meet Cowper "respecting a proposed statue to the memory of the late Mr Locke", was set up (J.Drury, The Life of Joseph Locke, London, 1862, p.354, and TNA Work 1/68). This time permission was refused, and an alternative site for Locke's statue was found in his home-town Barnsley, in Yorkshire (J.Devey, The Life of Joseph Locke, London, 1862, p.354). Marochetti visited Barnsley in 1864 to make arrangements, and the statue was inaugurated there in 1866 (Times, 29 Aug. 1864 and Barnsley Times, 20 Jan. 1866). Lord John Manners, who succeeded William Cowper as First Commissioner, gave every indication that he would honour his predecessor's agreement with Marochetti and the Memorial Committees. A period of inaction in relation to the other two statues can be attributed to the works then being carried out in the square (TNA Work 20/253). But nearly a year after Marochetti's death at the end of 1867, the new First Commissioner, Henry Layard, withdrew permission. He gave two reasons for doing so; first, that "the site should be reserved for statues of eminent statesmen", and second, that "the two statues in question differ altogether in proportion from the statue of Canning". (TNA Work 20/253)
It would appear that following this rejection, Marochetti's son, Maurizio, handed the two statues over to the Institution of Civil Engineers. It was they who negotiated the transfer of the statue of Stephenson to the London and North Western Railway Company, who erected it in June 1871 outside Euston Station.(Architect, vol.V, 24 June 1871, p.329) St George Burke was meanwhile endeavouring to obtain from the Metropolitan Board of Works a site for Brunel on the Embankment. His request to the Board was made in a letter of 24 June 1871 (LMA, MBW, Minutes of Proceedings, 30 June 1871). The Board asked for the statue to be set up temporarily on the Embankment to give them an idea of its effect (Times, 14 Oct. 1871). It eventually made its appearance in August, "perched on a shabby stand", "among heaps of rubbish and puddles innumerable", on a stretch of Crown land to the west of Charing Cross railway bridge. A reviewer for the Athenæum claimed to have had difficulty identifying the subject. Was it Cobden, Pugin, or perhaps Brunel? If the last, he complained, "his intellectual, energetic, self-reliant, self-asserting, and somewhat strained look is absent". (Athenaeum, no.2299, 18 Nov. 1871, p.661). The reporter for the Illustrated London News (vol. LIX, no.1667, 2 Sept. 1871) found the head "fairly like, but the treatment of the overcoat, waistcoat and 'continuations' .......curiously inartistic". Placed as the statue was, in close proximity to Noble's statue of Sir James Outram, this reporter was conscious of a discrepancy of proportion, the Brunel being in itself smaller, and placed on a much lower pedestal, concluding, "if every fresh statue put up on the Embankment has equal dissimilarity the new quay will very shortly rival the Groves of Blarney".
Permission was granted to erect Brunel on the Embankment on 13 Oct. 1871 (LMA, MBW, Minutes of Proceedings 13 Oct. 1871). Protracted negotiations then took place between the Board and the Memorial Committee's representatives over the form of the pedestal. On the committee's side the matter was placed in the hands of Brunel's son and of J.C.Horsley R.A., who, in their turn applied to an architect friend, Richard Norman Shaw for designs (LMA, MBW, Presented Papers, General Committee, 2 Feb. 1872, and Minutes of Proceedings,13 Dec. 1872). The committee was particularly insistent that the statue should be placed on top of a screen. The site which the Board's engineer, Bazalgette, had chosen for the statue, backed onto Temple Station, which in those days was a rather basic utilitarian structure. It was probably the committee's intention to exclude it from view. Early in 1872 three designs were submitted, to which Bazalgette made some modifications. Shaw then made a further submission which Bazalgette liked less than one of the previous designs. (LMA, MBW, 13 Dec. 1872) This was design No.4, a later version of which still exists amongst the presented papers of the Works and General Purposes Committee (LMA, MBW, Presented Papers of the Works and General Purposes Committee, 13 Dec. 1872). The Board attempted to persuade the committee to drop the screen idea, and to go instead for an "ordinary pedestal", but they urged in vain. (LMA, MBW, Minutes of Proceedings, 20 Dec. 1872) Finally one of Shaw's designs was accepted on 21 Dec. 1874. What contemporary reports refer to rather contemptuously as "the masonry" only went up in the Spring and early Summer of 1877.(LMA, MBW, Works and general Purposes Committee Minutes, 21 Dec. 1874) The statue was reported to be in place in the Building News of 4 May, and work was reported to have been completed on 29 June. (Building News, vol.XXXII, 4 May 1877, p.455, and LMA, MBW, Minutes of Proceedings, 29 June 1877)
The screen-pedestal was at this time a complete novelty, though it provided a precedent for countless comparable structures among later public monuments. Some members of the Board were outraged by it, one describing it as "about the ugliest and most horrid structure of the kind he had ever seen" (Builder, vol.XXXV, no.1810, 13 Oct. 1877, p.1035). There were demands for its removal or modification, which rumbled on into 1878, and then faded away. In no time vandals had begun to leave their mark on "the masonry", leading to the demand that the railing which ran to the back of the memorial should be brought round to the front, to shut it off from the public. Mr Deputy Saunders, who had denounced the screen as a "horrid structure", protested that its one virtue was in the provision of seats for the public, and that to deny the public access to them would be "a very ridiculous proceeding". (Builder, vol. XXXV, no.1810, 13 Oct. 1877, p.1035)
The remainder of the money raised for the Brunel memorial seems to have been spent on a memorial stained glass window for Westminster Abbey. This was executed in 1868 by Henry Holiday, with some input from Richard Norman Shaw, and can be found in the north transept of the nave.
In Nov. 1950 much damage to the bronze figure and to the stonework of the Brunel memorial, from a combination of weathering and enemy action, was reported by the architect to the LCC's Planning Committee. The overall cost for repair was estimated at £1,356, of which £825s worth was attributable to war damage. (LMA, LCC, CL/PK/2/100. Report by the Architect to the Town Planning Department, 27 Nov. 1950)