1850 - Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860)


Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London view from the south bank, 1860

Designers: Barry, Sir Charles (1795-1860); Pugin, Augustus Welby Northmore (1812-1852)
Copyright: Joe Low/RIBA Library Photographs Collection (1994)

Ironically, Charles Barry was born just a stone’s throw from his greatest work. Born in Bridge Street, Westminster, his masterpiece is considered to be the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament in London, after the fire of 1834.


After being articled to a firm of surveyors for six years, Barry’s Grand Tour from 1817-1820 provided him with the foundation to observe and practice architecture. He worked primarily in the Gothic Revival style and his first two public commissions, the churches of St Matthew, Campfield, Manchester (1822-25) and All Saints, Stand, Lancashire (1822-26) followed the Gothic line.


Barry was still able to apply the Italian palazzo style of Florence and Rome, massive and solid rather than just a shell, to his buildings, and the best example of this is the Traveller’s Club (1829) in Pall Mall, London, which he won by competition. Barry’s building is seen as an improved version of the Florence Palazzo and is considered a turning point in English architecture.


The Houses of Parliament commission was won in 1836, begun in 1840, but not opened until 12 years later. Delays were caused on-site by the necessity of clearing the old buildings, difficulties with the heating and ventilation superintendant, and a mason’s strike.


Barry chose Augustus Welby Pugin to work as the skilled decorator on the scheme because he admired his enthusiasm for Gothic details. Barry the architect was the planner and businessman who complemented Pugin's skills as a sensitive artist. 


Designer: Barry, Sir Charles (1795-1860)
Copyright: Edwin Smith/RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection (1970)


Barry’s qualities seem to lie in his versatility. He could deliver whatever the client required, as long as it included ornamentation. Manchester City Art Gallery (1835); was built as a Greek Revival building; he added Tudor styling to Canford Manor (1850) in Dorset. Judging by the high level of decoration on his buildings, Barry seems to have disliked blank spaces.


Won the Royal Gold Medal for the magnificent work currently in hand, namely the Palace of Westminster.


Barry’s Royal Gold Medal in 1850 and his knighthood in 1852 were both given as a result of his Westminster masterpiece.