Brunel 200 Legacy Brunel: In Love with the Impossible
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In Love with the Impossible

The Brunel 200 team was always keen to include a variety of publications as part of the celebratory programme to provide different forms of information about Brunel and a lasting legacy for the year.

Of these the most ambitious was Brunel: In Love with the Impossible, a large format, beautifully designed collection of newly commissioned essays featuring over 460 high-quality illustrations. The book was divided into three sections – Brunel: The Life, Brunel: The Work and Brunel in Context – with an introduction and conclusion written by the book's editors Andrew Kelly and Melanie Kelly. Throughout the book, illustrated text boxes provided information on Brunel's family, his other projects, and the political and cultural events of the period. A detailed timeline was provided among the appendices.

The structure of the book, with a list of proposed authors for the individual chapters, was drawn up in early 2004. The authors' first drafts were received in June 2005 and final versions were sent for design in August. The book was launched at Merchant's Hall on 6 April 2006. Of the 8,000 copy print run, only 400 paperbacks remained at the end of the year. Many of the books had been purchased in bulk by organisations for gifts but some individual sales were also made at the exhibition sites, in local bookshops and by mail order.

The book was sponsored by seven engineering companies and the Society of Merchant Venturers. Alf Perry of Arup, who in his capacity of trustee of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Underfall Yard was one of the first to join the Brunel 200 advisory group, and brought together the engineering sponsors. All the companies were inspired by Brunel and his work, and the closing chapter of the book, which examined Brunel's legacy, included modern-day examples of engineering projects led by these companies that could be described as Brunellian in their vision and delivery.

Among comments received regarding the book were the following: 'one hell of an achievement', 'a sumptuous tome', 'a fantastic publication, beautifully produced, must now surely become the authoritative Brunel book'.

Brunel: In Love with the Impossible book cover.

The chapters of the book are listed below:

Introduction by Andrew Kelly and Melanie Kelly

Section 1: Brunel: The Life

Isambard Kingdom Brunel by Angus Buchanan

An outline of Brunel’s early years and his preparation as engineer, offering an intriguing insight into his vision, charismatic personality, dynamism, innovative flair, and organisational and managerial skills. Brunel was outstandingly a man of his times and the author explains why Brunel has come to represent the pinnacle of British achievement of his period.

Marc Isambard Brunel by Andrew Nahum

A portrait of Marc Brunel, Brunel’s highly original and inventive father who played a crucial role as the educator of his son and who was equally important to the development of both civil and mechanical engineering. The author focuses upon Marc Brunel’s invention of the Portsmouth block-making machinery and shows how this astonishing anticipation of the later age of mass production gained support and finance.

The nineteenth-century engineer as cultural hero by Christine MacLeod

An exploration of the extraordinary rise to prominence in mid-nineteenth-century Britain of the engineering professions. Engineers of the period were particularly active in securing their place in the nation’s pantheon alongside the traditional heroes of the battlefield and the political arena. There was also a wide outburst of popular feeling and commemorative activity that celebrated their achievements and mourned their deaths.

Section 2: Brunel: The Work

‘Suspensa vix via fit’ – the saga of the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge
by Michael Pascoe and Adrian Andrews

The enthralling story of the Clifton Suspension Bridge from its origins 250 years ago in a wine merchant’s will to the celebrated national icon the bridge is today. Almost uniquely for a suspension bridge of that period, it has survived virtually unaltered into the twenty-first century having been completed by Brunel’s fellow engineers after his early death.

Brunel in Bristol docks by Angus Buchanan

An enlightening look at the advice given by Brunel to the Bristol Dock Company during his engagement as its consulting engineer, examining the elements that were implemented and the consequences of those decisions. Far less iconic or romantic than Brunel’s other projects in the city, this work helped to ensure the survival of Bristol as a port in the 1840s.

The Great Western Railway by Steven Brindle

An examination of Brunel’s design and construction of the Great Western Railway (GWR), and his subsequent work for the company. The GWR might be said to represent the central theme of Brunel’s career, continuing from his first appointment in 1834 right through to his death.

ss Great Britain by Andrew Lambert

The fascinating story of how Brunel created the modern ship, and how that first prototype survived the vicissitudes and vagaries of oceanic life by accident and design to return to her birthplace 120 years later for the start of her long-term restoration. The ss Great Britain opened the modern world and her descendants carry 99 per cent of all international trade.

The Brunel Collection, Bristol University Library by Nick Lee

A history and description of the remarkable Brunel Collection, which began with the University of Bristol’s acquisition of family papers and materials from Brunel’s grand-daughter, Lady Celia Noble, in 1950 and has since grown considerably through gift and purchase.

Section 3: Brunel in Context

Professional colleagues by Michael Bailey

A portrait of the new generation of young engineers, of whom Brunel was a part, remarkable for their innovatory engineering talents, managerial and communication skills, and tenacity. This chapter explains why Brunel’s contribution to the phenomenal mid-nineteenth-century railway-building programme cannot be viewed in isolation.

Who built Brunel? by Adrian Vaughan

An examination of the invaluable contribution made by hundreds of manual labourers, surveyors, contractors, resident engineers, assistants and investors whose work on site and behind the scenes ensured Brunel’s visions became a reality.

Technological and social change: the impact on society of the work of Brunel
and his contemporaries by Denis Smith

An insight into the dramatic social changes that followed in the wake of the railway and other nineteenth-century technical developments. Increased personal mobility, telegraphic communications, a more varied diet, improved water supply, better sanitation, a rapidly changing workplace – technological change had unprecedented consequences for British society.

Lines, landscape and anti-modernism: understanding Victorian opposition to the railways by Marcus Waithe

A revealing exploration of Victorian opposition to the railways, looking particularly at the work of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, men who expressed an ideological objection to the advent of mass transport. The author also examines how Victorian efforts to limit the incursions of industry have affected the landscape and society we see about us today.

The function of ornament: the consolation of design in the Industrial Age
by Claire O’Mahony

A study of the complex relationships between art and industry in the Victorian age focusing upon the uniquely rich and neglected site of the railway station and its decoration. The author shows how the styles in which engineers dressed their monuments of this age of progress offered a means through which to cope with the challenges of modernity. 

The book ends with a chapter by Andrew Kelly and Melanie Kelly on the Brunel legacy and the inspirational engineering projects of today.

The book is available online from Amazon in paperback only.

Publication details

Publication date
April 2006
Bristol Cultural Development Partnership
Retail Price
Paperback £19.95
Paperback 0955074215
Architecture, Art, Engineering, History
Collection of photographs, original sketches and drawings, plans, paintings and prints, cultural artefacts in black and white and colour.

Brunel: In Love with the Impossible book spread.