'The man with the greatest originality of thought and power of execution, bold in his plans but right’.
Daniel Gooch, 1859
Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s personal motto was 'En Avant' (Forward).
In his lifetime, he constructed nearly 1,200 miles of rail; including tracks in Ireland, Italy and Bengal, with all the associated tunnels, bridges and roads. He took maritime engineering into another era and helped to create and inspire the innovative land and sea transport networks that carried the Industrial Revolution, not only around Britain but around the world, opening up global travel and communications.
At only just over 5 feet tall, Brunel was worried he would not be taken seriously because of his height and often tried to appear taller by sitting up straight (especially when riding his horse) and by wearing a very tall hat! It is estimated that the hat was 8 inches in height.
‘My self-conceit and love of glory or rather approbation vie with each other which shall Govern me. The latter is so strong that even of a dark night riding home when I pass some unknown person who perhaps does not even look at me I catch myself trying to look big on my little pony…I often do the most silly useless things to appear to advantage before or attract the attention of those I shall never see again or whom I care nothing about.’
Brunel was probably quite a chaotic worker (he notably mentions in his diary a strong desire to feel more organised) - but he was meticulous with maths and his measurements were so detailed that this is probably why so many of his projects are still standing today, not least the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
He wanted to be the best, to influence future engineers and be remembered. He wanted recognition and reverence when he was alive but also to have a legacy. But even with all this strive for glory and fame he was still a man dedicated and in love with his craft. He described the Bridge as his first child, his darling.
‘I remember with singular distinctiveness the first time I ever saw him, when I was a lad of fourteen….he criticised with great keenness and judgement a drawing I had with me, and at the same time gave me a lesson on paper straining. From that time till his death he was my most intimate friend. Being naturally imbued with artistic taste and perception of a very high order, his critical remarks were always of great value and were made with an amount of good humour which softened their occasionally somewhat trying pungency. He had a remarkably accurate eye for proportion, as well as taste for form, This evinced in every line to be found in his sketch books, and in the architectural features of his various works.
Those who remember the gradual arrangement and fitting up of his house in Duke Street will want no assurance from me of your father’s rare artistic feeling. He passed, I believe, the pleasantest of his leisure moments in decorating that house, and well do I remember our visits in search of rare furniture, china, bronzes etc with which he filled it, till it became one of the most remarkable and attractive houses in London’
John Callcott Horsley (brother in law to IK Brunel), 1870