Brunel 200 Masthead Montage   Acknowledgements Visitor Information Creative Bristol
Brunel 200 Masthead Montage
Critical Reactions

Statuette of Brunel (Private collection)

  Statuette of Brunel (Private collection)

The artist Samuel Jackson’s impression of a detail from a Brunel bridge design (Bristol Museums & Art Gallery)

  The artist Samuel Jackson’s impression
  of a detail from a Brunel bridge design
  (Bristol Museums & Art Gallery)

Cross-section of ss Great Britain engine room (ICE)

  Cross-section of ss Great Britain
  engine room (ICE)

Contractor’s drawing based on Brunel’s specification for GWR’s public house at Steventon (Adrian Vaughan Collection)

  Contractor’s drawing based on Brunel’s
  specification for GWR’s public house
  at Steventon (Adrian Vaughan

ss Great Eastern under construction (ICE)

  ss Great Eastern under construction

Brunel’s sketches of GWR railway carriages (University of Bristol)

  Brunel’s sketches of GWR railway
  carriages (University of Bristol)

Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge crossing the Tamar (Private collection)

  Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge crossing
  the Tamar (Private collection)

Signature of Brunel (University of Bristol)

  Signature of Brunel (University of

ss Great Eastern at Blackwall (University of Bristol)

  ss Great Eastern at Blackwall
  (University of Bristol)

Making repairs on ss Great Eastern (University of Bristol)

  Making repairs on ss Great Eastern
  (University of Bristol)

Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Brunel Biography
Practical, fanciful; disciplined, impulsive; ruthless, sympathetic; obsessive, distracted; success,  failure. Brunel was a man of many parts, moods and talents, and it is not surprising that he
Major Projects
Critical Reactions
Brunel, Bristol and the South West
Brunel in Context divided opinion. The following tributes and criticisms indicate a range of views and impressions about the man and his work.
The Brunel Legacy
Education and Learning
Events and Competitions

Not one of the great schemes which he set on foot can fairly be called profitable, and yet they are cited, not only with pride, but with satisfaction, by the great body of a nation supposed to be
pre-eminently fond of profit; and the man himself was, above all other projectors, a favourite with those very shareholders whose pockets he so unceasingly continued to empty.

There is always something not displeasing to the British
temperament in a magnificent disappointment.

Obituary in the Morning Chronicle 1859

In the midst of difficulties of no ordinary kind, with an ardour rarely equalled, and an application both of body and mind almost beyond the limit of physical endurance, in the full pursuit of a great and cherished idea, Brunel was suddenly struck down, before he had accomplished the task which his daring genius had set before him.

Following in the footsteps of his distinguished parent… his early career, even from its commencement, was remarkable for originality in the conception of the works confided to him. As his experience increased, his confidence in his powers augmented...

We, at least, who are benefited by their successes, who feel that our Institution has reason to be proud of its association with such names as Brunel and Stephenson, have a duty to perform; and that duty is, to honour their memory and emulate their example.

Joseph Locke in address to the Institution of Civil Engineers, November 1859

View of Brunel’s atmospheric railway at Dawlish (Private collection)

View of Brunel’s atmospheric railway at Dawlish (Private collection)

I remember with singular distinctiveness the first time I ever saw him, when I was a lad of fourteen, and had just obtained my studentship at the Royal Academy. He criticised with great keenness and judgment a drawing which 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 is evinced in every line to be found in his sketch books, and in all the architectural features of his various works.

From letter to Isambard Brunel by John Horsley, February 1870

His power of doing without sleep for long intervals was most
remarkable. He also possessed the power, which I have never seen equalled in any other man, of maintaining a calm and even temper, never showing irritation even when he was bearing an amount of mental and bodily fatigue which few could have sustained. His
presence of mind and courage never failed

In fact, he was a joyous, open-hearted, considerate friend, willing to contribute to the pleasure and enjoyment of those about him; well knowing his own power, but never intruding it to the annoyance of others, unless he was thwarted or opposed by pretentious ignorance...

His professional friends before his death, and his private friends at all times, well knew the genius, the intense energy, and indefatigable industry with which every principle and detail of his profession was mastered; and both knew and valued the high moral tone which pervaded every act of his life.

From letter to Isambard Brunel by William Hawes, June 1870

Mr Brunel had always an aversion to follow any man’s lead; and that another engineer had fixed the gauge of a railway, or built a bridge, or designed an engine, in one way, was of itself often a sufficient reason with him for adopting an altogether different course...

Mr Brunel... determined that the Great Western should be a giant’s road, and that travelling should be conducted upon it at double speed. His ambition was to make the best road that imagination could devise; whereas the main object of the Stephensons, both father and son, was to make a road that would pay.

Samuel Smiles in George Stephenson 1875

The time has long passed away since there was any difference of opinion as to the deplorable error of the original [Great Western Railway] board in neglecting the sober-minded, practical, and economical engineers of the North, already deservedly famous, and in preferring to them an inexperienced theorist, enamoured of novelty, prone to seek for difficulties rather than to evade them, and utterly indifferent as to the outlay which his recklessness entailed upon his employers. The evil consequences of his pet crotchet, the ‘broad gauge’ system, on the commerce of Bristol will have to be noticed here after. For the present it will suffice to show the fallaciousness of Mr Brunel’s estimates.

John Latimer in Annals of Bristol in the Nineteenth Century 1887

Despite the gaiety, the wit, and the high spirits which so distinguished him as a youth and as a young man, Brunel’s was not, fundamentally, a happy disposition. His own writing in his youth confirm this. They suggest that at the core of his being there lay a profound melancholy and that it was to escape from it that he became so addicted to what he called his ‘castle building’. In his unhappiness, in a nature so intensely proud and gifted with so vivid an imagination, we have surely, the key to his extraordinary energy. Doubt and pessimism which might have driven weaker natures to apathetic despair or to orgies of self-indulgence drove Brunel into a fury of creative activity. So proud a man could never admit despair nor any defeat. Whatever imagination suggested, pride drove him to undertake and so the ‘châteaux d’Espagne’ of youth became the great achievements of his maturity.

L T C Rolt in Isambard Kingdom Brunel 1957

He was indeed a great man, an exceptional man, though he did not, by himself, ‘build the railway’ but received vital assistance from untold thousands of other men – whose efforts he rarely if ever acknowledged. It is astonishing to think that his seemingly superhuman labours and the intense mental energy he focused came from an unhappy mind, a mind plagued with ‘blue devils’ and so supremely lacking in self-confidence that he believed he had to slave incessantly or be destroyed by the hobgoblin of ‘idleness’...

His perfect taste, his insistence on only the best workmanship, his obsession with his status and his frequent changes of mind and grievous mistakes cost his shareholders dear... while he himself did not achieve great wealth and indeed paid for his dreams by his death at the early age of fifty-three. But he did not dream in vain. He took up his challenges as an honourable knight-errant should, he pursued his dragons with the utmost tenacity and executed them with reckless bravery.

Adrian Vaughan in Isambard Kingdom Brunel: engineering knight-errant 1991

I K Brunel came rapidly to receive from posterity the accolade of having been one of the greatest and most heroic of British engineers. This judgment does justice to the dynamic, effervescent personality, which inspired such loyalty and affection amongst his friends. He was a man motivated by a vision of creative imagination to transform the ability of people to travel... Brunel was never an easy man to live with. He was always restless, ebullient, challenging those around him to do what he wanted them to do. In many respects, he accepted the assumptions and prejudices of his own society without question, being a conformist in most matters of taste and belief. But in his engineering vision he was a driven man, and he devoted himself to the fulfilment of his objectives and thereby to the transformation of the way of living in modern societies. He was not so much a Renaissance Man as a man of his time, an eminent early Victorian, of the heroic age of British engineering.

Angus Buchanan in Brunel: the life and times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel 2002

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