Frontispiece to Barry.

The ninth child of a stationer and bookbinder who supplied the government, the future Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) "started with no advantages of birth, and an imperfect education" (Barry 1). But it seems propitious now that he was born in Bridge Street, Westminster, close to the site of the building for which he would always be best known. Indeed, he was christened at nearby St Margaret's, between the old Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Orphaned in boyhood, Barry left school at fifteen to be articled to a surveyor in Lambeth, and soon proved his diligence, competence and determination to succeed by becoming the firm's business manager.

However, he had ambitions beyond this, and when he came of age and received his share of his father's inheritance, he decided to leave his job to embark on a tour of Europe. From France and Italy he went on to Greece and Constantinople, then, much less conventionally at this date, took the opportunity to extend his tour to Egypt and Syria, visiting such places as Aswan, Jerusalem and Damascus, as well as taking in Cyprus, Malta and Sicily. The whole extensive trip lasted just over three years, from June 1817 to August 1820, and convinced him of the superiority of Italian architecture.

On his return he set up his own practice in London, at first building Church Commissioner churches. Soon he was winning competitions for other commissions, and on 29 February 1836 he learnt that he had won the most important one of all: the commission for the new Palace of Westminster. Working on this with A. W. N. Pugin, and others of his team, was to be his main life's task, as it forced him to give up a good deal of his now flourishing practice; it also probably hastened his death, just as it did Pugin's, because of the relentless pressure under which he was forced to operate. When writing Barry's biography, his son commented feelingly on the "difficulty, controversy, and misrepresentation" that beset those who "work for the public service" (Barry 157). A more recent biographer describes Barry's client on this occasion — "the two houses of parliament as well as the executive government acting through the office of works" — as "a multi-headed monster" (Port). Nevertheless, he grappled with it successfully. It was at the opening of the Victoria Tower in 1852 that he was knighted by the Queen; and a flag was flown half-mast from the tower on the day of his funeral. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the presence of an amazing roll-call of the architectural "greats" of the time (see "Funeral").

There could only be one Palace of Westminster — an inimitable national icon that symbolises British democracy all over the world. But a number of Barry's other works also testify to his skills as "a designer on an imperial scale, who used stylistic differences for aesthetic effect" (Port). With his stately club buildings on Pall Mall, his support for grand Italianate buildings like Leeds Town Hall (see Barry 318; Dixon and Muthesius 152), and even with his plans for the remodelling of Dunrobin Castle in what came to be known as the Scottish Baronial style (see Curl 93), Barry exerted a considerable influence on the wider architectural scene. Since two of his sons (Charles Barry Jr and E. M. Barry) also proved talented architects, and another, John Wolfe Wolfe-Barry, made his mark in civil engineering, his influence may be said to have persisted in this way too. — Jacqueline Banerjee.




Allinson, Kenneth. Architects and Architecture of London. Oxford: Elsevier, 2006.

Barry, Alfred (Rev.). The Life and Works of Sir Charles Barry, R.A., F.R.S., etc. etc.. London: John Murray, 1867. Internet Archve. Contributed by the Getty Research Institute. Web. May 14, 2017.

Curl, James Stevens. Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1990.

Dixon, Roger, and Stefan Muthesius. Victorian Architecture. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

"Funeral of Sir Charles Barry." The Times. 23 May 1860: 9. Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 May 2017.

Port, M. H. "Barry, Sir Charles (1795–1860)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. May 14, 2017.

Shenton, Caroline. Mr Barry's War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

"Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860)." Grace's Guide. Web. 14 May 2017.

Last modified 20 May 2024