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En Avant! What Brunel Taught Me Andrew Kelly

Written by Andrew Kelly

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Brunel200 was a year-long celebration of the life and work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the world’s most versatile, audacious and innovative engineers. Held in 2006, it marked the 200th anniversary of his birth. Andrew Kelly led Brunel200.

Brunel’s impact on Bristol has been, and remains, considerable. The Clifton Suspension Bridge and ss Great Britain are the most popular tourist attractions in the city. And we wanted to get even more people to visit Bristol in 2006 and show how important these and his other projects – not just the ones in Bristol – were in engineering terms. We also wanted to promote engineering, arts, science, innovation, design and architecture. And, inspired by him, we wanted to encourage new Brunels.

Here was a chance to unite Bristol, the South West and even much of England and South Wales in a cultural project. We grasped this opportunity in full. I have not worked on a project since then that did so much, in so many different areas, across the country.

Brunel200 was both a celebration of the past and a demonstration of the relevancy of history to the way people live today and will live in the future. The programme included exhibitions and debates, arts and engineering projects, garden tours and urban trails, television programmes, guided and self-guided walks, comics and academic books. It reached communities in towns and cities, in schools, colleges and universities, in museums and galleries, and online. I knew that we had reached as far as we could when our Heritage Lottery officer said there was even a Brunel200 display in his local community centre, in a small village deep in the South West.

Bristol Ideas spent four years developing the project. Initially looking at the prospects within Bristol, by early 2004 the advisory group had grown into a much larger body of interested parties and the proposed programme had expanded to cover the whole South West and parts of the UK. Successful applications to the Millennium Commission’s Urban Cultural Programme and the Heritage Lottery Fund, along with backing from a range of sponsors and other funders – including Arts & Business, Arts Council England, Arup, Bond Pierce, Butcombe Brewery, Discovery Channel, First Great Western, Osborne Clarke and Rolls-Royce – provided a total spending budget of around £4m: our biggest ever to that date and one we never surpassed in the nearly two decades that followed.

Beermats for the special Brunel200 beer produced by Butcombe Brewery. Hundreds of thousands of four different beermats were used in pubs in Bristol and the South West with information on Brunel and Paddington Station, Clifton Suspension Bridge, Temple Meads Station and ss Great Britain. These received funding from the Arts & Business New Partners Scheme which had a long relationship with Bristol Ideas.

The press launch for the programme was held on 12 April 2005 on the ss Great Britain and then journalists and guests went on a bus tour of Brunel sites. The Brunel200 website went live on this date and featured hundreds of images that had been gathered for use in publicity and research material. To better support our increasing workload, the advisory group made way for a smaller operational group backed by marketing, education and exhibition sub-committees. The core team of Melanie Kelly (research director and project manager), Alison Parsons (accountant) and myself as director was supplemented by three fixed-term Brunel200 staff appointments: Ruth Sidgwick (project manager), Sue Sanctuary (education coordinator) and Laura Thorne (project support). Martyn Heighton served as South West Brunel200 Champion in the early stages of development.

On 8 April 2006 – a day of glorious sunshine and torrential rain – thousands gathered on Observatory Hill at Clifton Down for a free concert featuring performances from Brunel Brass, Bristol Choral Society, Dance Bristol, acta community theatre, jazz musician Andy Sheppard and 200 saxophonists. Thousands more gathered in Cumberland Basin for the best view of the star of the show, the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

As darkness fell and the final notes of Sheppard’s rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ drifted away, author and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis, accompanied by our three young winners of the Send Brunel a Birthday Card competition, pressed a giant plunger on the terrace of the Avon Gorge Hotel. From this cue, the Clifton Suspension Bridge was bathed in a new, state-of-the-art lighting system and, seconds later, the opening salvo of a spectacular display of fireworks set to music rose into the air. This was the stunning culmination of our official opening event.

A special Christmas card created by Simon Gurr for 2005 looking forward to Brunel200.

There were three major Brunel200 exhibitions in Bristol – held at the ss Great Britain’s Maritime Heritage Centre, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and We The Curious – in addition to smaller-scale exhibitions in Bristol and across the region. A personal favourite was the collection of photographs by Nick Hand of local companies bearing the Brunel name shown in a disused early twentieth-century toilet block on Park Row.

There were a variety of publications of which the most ambitious was Brunel: In Love With the Impossible, a large-format, beautifully designed collection of newly commissioned essays featuring more than 460 high-quality illustrations. Our subtitle came from Kenneth Clark’s TV series and book Civilisation: Brunel ‘remained all his life in love with the impossible’. Another important publication was the comic-book biography of Brunel written by Eugene Byrne and drawn by Simon Gurr.

Brunel200’s main educational programme was developed with Creative Partnerships. It provided a wide range of learning opportunities for all ages and abilities. At least 20,000 children benefited from the Brunel200 school residencies and other live projects in Bristol. Individual venues and organisations across the region also organised their own Brunel-themed educational activities.

Brunel200 sought to bridge the gap that has developed between the arts and sciences, celebrating all forms of creativity and raising awareness of the shared goals and methods of visual artists, performers, engineers, architects and scientists. This approach saw 30 new arts projects supported by Brunel200 in Bristol and 18 more in the wider region, which used an array of art forms to explore engineering, industrial heritage and local communities. They included music commissions, quilting, touring theatrical shows, site-specific sculpture, crime fiction and an epic poem.

Brunel200 gave everyone the opportunity to celebrate Bristol’s close association with a charismatic character who changed the world; to bring together arts and sciences, as Brunel did, showing the importance of creativity then and now; and to bring together people in the South West in a manner that no other project has done before or since. It was certainly the most ambitious project we ever undertook, and we reaped the benefits of its success for many years, including the new partnerships we established.

Brunel was an inspiration to me before we did the project, and he has continued to inspire me since. When he died, Brunel’s friend and fellow engineer Daniel Gooch said: ‘By his death the greatest of England’s engineers was lost, the man with the greatest originality of thought and power of execution, bold in his plans but right. The commercial world thought him extravagant; but although he was so, great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act.’ This is a lesson we need to continue to learn. And when I have felt low, or tired, or fear our work has lost its way, I always remember his motto: en avant! Forward.

Andrew Kelly was director of Bristol Ideas 1993-2024 (apart from a brief period when he became creative producer). He was director of most of Bristol Ideas’ projects and founded and led Festival of Ideas and Festival of the Future City. He is the author of many books.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

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