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Mr Barry's War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 Hardcover – 8 Sep 2016
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A very worthwhile addition to the bookshelves of aficionados of Victorian design and architecture. (Chris Pond, Context)
a real jewel, finely wrought and beautiful, just like the Palace of Westminster it describes. (Lucy Worsley, Books of the Year 2016, BBC History Magazine)
vividly written ... an authoritative and lively account of the political and artistic machinations involved in the creation of one of the capital's most familiar landmarks. (Ian Critchley, Sunday Times)
not only a fascinating read but a timely one, too (Tony Rennell, Daily Mail)
If Shenton's first book was like a grotesque Gothic novel, this is an epic, with a hero at its heart. (William Whyte, Literary Review)
Shenton seeks [...] to correct the historical record and succeeds definitively (Rosemary Hill, Times Literary Supplement)
This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan't ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can't wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book. (Mike Paterson, London Historians)
Shenton brilliantly outlines how from conception to completion, the design and construction of the new Palace of Westminster were a fearsome battleground ... [Parliamentary] colleagues who want to consider the current options and challenges should read Caroline Shenton's Mr Barry's War. (Keith Simpson, Total Politics)
About the Author
Caroline Shenton was Director of the Parliamentary Archives at Westminster from 2008 to 2014, and prior to that was a senior archivist at Parliament and The National Archives at Kew. Her first book, The Day Parliament Burned Down, won the inaugural Political Book of the Year Award in 2013. It was also shortlisted for a number of other prizes, including the Longman-History Today Prize, and was a Book of the Year for the Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, Daily Mail, and Herald Scotland. This is its sequel.
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The major, and all-time contemporary message of this grand narrative is that taking on large-scale government projects is bad for your health, though at least this one – and perhaps the British Library more recently – show that if the architect is totally and grimly determined – and especially in the face of establishment abuse (Parliament then, the heir to the throne now), there can be a fabulous monument at the end of it. Usually, though, then as now, meretricious trash of the Dome variety is the awful outcome of scandalous government vanity projects, though mercifully for our visual senses, they are mostly silo-ed in the over-stocked realm of doomed IT projects.
Pugin, a voluble and earthy catholic, was widely disliked, and even when he emerged from the relative obscurity of his role as Palace designer to triumph with the Gothic Court at the Great Exhibition, was immediately attacked. Barry on the other hand, in spite of a smooth social manner, managed to attract voluminous bile pretty well continuously from both parliamentary houses, though he was protected by the emollient views of Peel.
This fabulous building at the centre of the Empire (which Queen Victoria clearly loved) is also the meeting point of innumerable strands of British history, politics, art and science, and Caroline Shenton effortlessly weaves these together, with lots of surprises for those of us who are not so well-informed about mid-19th century Britain: the trade union movement and the critical role that the Palace stone-masons played; the Chartists; lunatic pseudo-science, such as the clearly bonkers Dr Reid who somehow got himself appointed to design the massive engineering of the ventilation and heating systems, and systematically failed to deliver anything other than recurrent nightmares for Barry and miasmal stinks and freezing corners in the building itself; international diplomacy with universal acclaim for the project from visiting dignitaries and royalty; and real engineering stunners, such as the massive cofferdam needed to build the river-side aspect of the Palace, and the upwardly creeping cranes used for the Victoria tower and which are in use everywhere in building tall now. But it is the timeline and physical scale of the project that are especially vividly conveyed; the architectural equivalent of Wagner’s operas of around the same time.
Shenton’s fluent narrative wears its academic polychrome wonderfully lightly but she is not very well served by her publishers, who seem to think this is just another of the 5 academic books a day that on average they publish (I only knew about this book because I attended a summer course at the Courtauld on the Gothic Revival given by a colleague of Shenton's). Well it isn’t a routine academic yawner. It should be way up the Amazon bestseller list, and not languishing where it is. The monochrome illustrations are sometimes carelessly reproduced, with significant loss of detail, and the insert of colour pictures is a bit parsimonious, but the production is otherwise unexceptional. I imagine it will eventually emerge in paperback and then sales might – relatively – zing along, but all this should already have been taken care of, and not abandoned to gloomy laissez-faire that is a sorry leitmotif of the subject she meticulously and lovingly documents.
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