Great British Architects: Charles Barry

A huge figure in British architecture, Charles Barry introduced the Italian Renaissance style to Great Britain.

Charles Barry, 1795–1860

Charles Barry is by all accounts the pre-eminent figure in 19th-century British architecture, in terms of the scale of his work, the strength of his energy and the extent of his artistic influence. Stylistically, he was an impressively versatile designer, able to create Gothic, Jacobean, Greek Revival and Scottish baronial architecture. Indeed, he viewed style as a trap that a skilled architect could take on at will. However, his main achievement was the introduction of the Italian Renaissance style to Britain.

For a public confronted in the late 1820s with the extremes of Greek Revival and Gothic architecture, this was a welcome alternative to building. This Italian style, adopted in countless terraces, clubs and town halls, became the most popular in Victorian Britain. Barry’s buildings are characterized by imposing lines, solid floor plans and meticulous attention to decorative detail.

Early career

Barry was born in 1795 to a prosperous Westminster stationer. At the age of 15, Barry was assigned to a surveying firm in Lambeth. His experience in the firm he later became head of gave him practical skills in architectural work. Drawing also fascinated him, and as a boy he used the walls of his bedroom, which he periodically repainted, for his sketches.

When Barry came of age, he used his father’s small inheritance to further his education by traveling. Between 1817 and 1820 he traveled as far as France, Italy, Greece, Malta, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Palestine. His surviving notebooks record in detail what he looked at and admired.

Upon his return to London, Barry actively participated in architectural competitions for works. Among his first successes was a commission for the Royal Manchester Institution (now the City Art Galleries) done in the orthodox style of the time: Greek Revival. He also built several Gothic churches, although he was not an ideological proponent of the style, stating: “Deep altars, high roof screens, and (to a lesser extent) columned aisles belong to the cult and institutions of the past.”Charles Barry

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The commission that first made Barry a celebrity was the Pall Mall Travelers’ Club (1829). Cast in the form of a Renaissance palazzo in Rome or Florence, it contrasted sharply in style with other public buildings of its kind in England. A few years later, in 1837, he designed the adjacent Reform Club generally in the same form.

In 1836, Barry won the architectural competition of his generation: the renovation of the Houses of Parliament. This huge project – at the time perhaps the largest and most complex ever undertaken in the UK – was to absorb Barry’s energy for the rest of his life. To push this forward, he reputedly only got five hours of sleep each night. Meanwhile, the politics and diplomacy of the job tested his reputation for genius to the breaking point.

Barry was knighted in 1852 after the Royal Entrance to the new palace was first used, but he died before the buildings were completed. They were completed by his son Edward Middleton Barry.

country houses

Within the constraints imposed by the demands of rebuilding Westminster, Barry also did private work. His country house designs tended to include extensions to an existing building in whatever style pleased his patron: the Jacobean style at Highclere (1839–1849), the Scottish baronial style at Dunrobin (1844–50), or the Italianate style at Harewood. (1843–50) Duncombe Park (1843-51).

In the course of such work, he also indulged in his passion for landscape gardening. His favorite approach – as in Shrubland Park, Suffolk, since 1848 – was to lay out terraces around the house and gradually create informal plantings outside until the garden became parkland.

Barry died on 12 May 1860 at his home on Clapham Common and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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