Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog. I thought your readers might be interested in a visit I have just paid to Bath.
I love Bath, and I’m sure anyone with an interest in the 18th and early 19thc does too if they’ve been there. Ravishing golden stone, elegant buildings,wonderful views and the ghosts of so many real and fictional characters–-how can it fail to enthrall?
One wonderful little museum is the Building of Bath Museum in the old Countess of Huntingdon’s Connection chapel. (The first photograph shows the lovely curve of the Paragon Buildings on the right. The Chapel is just a little further along.
The countess, determined to root out sin and debauchery by the application of sound
Methodist principles, had the chapel built in 1765 to try and improve the morals of Bath. By all accounts she failed-–it was a tough job--but the chapel remains as the only surviving Gothic revival building of the 18thc in the city.
Dr Amy Frost of the Bath Preservation Trust gave a fascinating lecture at the chapel this week on the development of the city, especially the work of John Wood the Elder who was responsible for the explosion of Palladian-style buildings which so characterise 18thc Bath, the period when it was a highly fashionable spa town and High Society poured in there to take the waters, gamble, eat too much, take more of the waters in an attempt at a cure for their digestions and then gamble some more.
He was not a very sound structural architect-–he rapidly learned to design the
frontages and then employ people who knew how to make drains work and walls stand up to do the rest. The exploding privies for the Duke of Chandos were, apparently, a major learning point for him. The duke was not amused.
But Wood was an inspired salesman (and copyist, cheerfully lifting the designs of
such successful architects as Colin Campbell) and was soon responsible for virtually every major building in the city from the 1720s to his death in 1754
as he was building the Circus. The photograph shows part of the circle of buildings of the Circus. And, of course, being inspired by the temple of Solomon and the Druids, the Circus is built on arcane mathematical principles meant to reflect the second temple and Stonehenge itself. The location of the Circus, he believed (on no evidence whatsoever), was an ancient British temple to the sun.
The work was finished by his son, John Wood the Younger. By all accounts John Jnr was a much better practical architect – the wonderful Royal Crescent is his construction. His father had already picked out the site as the location of a temple to the crescent moon, of course.
Yet however odd Wood’s theories might have been, and however shaky his grasp of plumbing, he was an inspired town planner and the Bath we so enjoy today is very much down to him.
But by the end of the 18thc and the beginning of the 19thc Bath was changing. In 1793 the Bath banks suffered a collapse. High Society was heading for Brighton in droves and instead of the aristocracy the middle classes moved in. Bath was the perfect city for them with shops, refreshment rooms and libraries. Glancing up as I walked along I found the ghost of one of those–-a “circulating library and reading room.
Elegant villas took over from fashionable terraces and Bath was no longer a hotbed of scandal and gaming, more a genteel resort for Regency visitors, a good place to
live for the professional classes and the ideal place to reside if one was wanting to make ends meet in elegant surroundings as Jane Austin’s family was.
Tragically much of the building of the late 18th and early 19thc, especially the “artisan” dwellings, fell victim to the most violent programmes of demolition during the 1960s and 70s – licensed vandalism that helped create the conservation movement that finally put an end to such thoughtless destruction. But the core of the city that Jane Austen, Beau Nash, and so many grand dames, roués, rakes and
scoundrels knew, remains.
We had a behind the scenes peek at an exhibition of maps of Bath “Putting Bath on
the Map” 19 February – 28th November (www.bptlearning.org.uk)
and heard about the amazing digital archive Bath In Time (www.bathintime.co.uk) which is well worth
– and Bath, so compact, is a perfect city to explore on foot.
Have you visited Bath? Did you love it as much as I did I wonder!