The Circus

The Circus in Bath is a unique Georgian achievement in urban planning.

Etching of the Circus in 1773 by John Robert Cozens (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)The startling novelty of its form attracted commentary from the time it was first built. Three terraces of houses curve around a central circular space. Designed by John Wood the Elder, it was begun by him in 1754 and completed in 1768 under the direction of his son John Wood the Younger.

John Wood the Elder had an extraordinary vision for Bath. He was the son of a Bath builder, but saw himself as an architect, not an artisan. Wood drank in the latest architectural ideas while working in London in his teens and early twenties. Passionately embracing Palladianism, he returned to Bath in 1727 afire to transform his native city. His head bursting with ideas, Wood had already devised a grandiose scheme. It would include a grand circus for the exhibition of sports, together with a royal forum and imperial gymnasium. The young man's imagination was feeding on the grandeur of Imperial Rome. Time and again his grand plans were thwarted or cut down to more practical size. He nonetheless imprinted his vision on Bath. He brought from London the concept of spacious squares and imposing terraces. His developments - the Parades and Queen Square - set a fashion in Bath that others were to emulate across the growing Georgian city.

Still he yearned to build a circus. What drove him? An obvious inspiration was the Colosseum. Its tiers of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns were echoed by Wood. As Smollett said, the Circus "looks like Vespasian's amphitheatre turned inside out." Presumably Wood had an amphitheatre in mind originally "for the exhibition of sports" and he described the final design as theatrical. But he was also fascinated by prehistoric stone circles. The acorns atop the Circus parapets may be his tribute to the druids, whom he credited with these ancient wonders.

Above all the Circus makes an impact through its plan. If we mentally draw lines between its three points of ingress, we see a triangle within a circle. The combination of triangle and circle is explicit in Wood's planned layout of the Parade Gardens. For Freemasons it symbolised the Trinity in Eternity. Wood himself wrote that the circle represented "the Great Canopy of Heaven" and saw an equilateral triangle as the most perfect other shape and a symbol of divinity. For Wood perhaps the most fundamental appeal of the Circus was simple, satisfying geometry.

The foundation stone of the King's Circus was laid with great fanfare on 7 February 1754. It seems that Wood had sent out the 18th-century equivalent of press releases. A letter from Bath to the Whitehall Evening Post rejoiced in the "New Buildings going to be erected on the North Side of the Town, after the Designs, and under the Directions, of that celebrated and eminent Architect and Antiquarian, John Wood, Esq." He was never to see the result. John Wood died on 23 May, leaving his son John to carry on the work.

At first there was good progress. The first six building leases for the Circus were granted on 3 January 1755. Among the lessees were the eminent politician William Pitt and his cousin Lady Lucy Stanhope, who took adjoining plots. On 18 November Lady Stanhope moved into her new-built house - the first in the Circus to be inhabited. Pitt's house was reported to be almost fit for his reception and he arrived in Bath around Christmas time.

Then came a hiatus. With the south-western segment all but finished work came to a halt. What caused the delay? Wood needed more land to complete the Circus. The original nine-acre site was not quite large enough. But that problem would have been foreseen from the start. It could almost certainly have been resolved earlier if the impetus to build had not been dampened. There was a pause in Bath's building boom from 1759 to 1761 - probably the result of high interest rates. Wood acquired extra land in 1762 and work began on the other two segments of the Circus. Gradually momentum built up again. By June 1768 all the Circus houses were finished and occupied.

The Circus c.1829 by Robert Woodroffe (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)The most desirable houses were those on the north side, with their sunny south-facing fronts. William Pitt, by then Earl of Chatham and in his second term as Prime Minister, moved from his double-sized house in the south-western segment to one almost as large at no.11, while the spacious central house at no.14 was taken by John, 4th Duke of Bedford. The close proximity was convenient in October 1766 as Chatham and Bedford pounded between each other's houses in a round of political bargaining. For men such as these the Circus provided a second or third home. They were seasonal visitors, part of the ebb and flow of the haute monde between London, country estates and Bath. Permanent residents included those who catered to the seasonal flow, such as the artist Thomas Gainsborough at no. 17 and his sister Mary Gibbon, who became the chief lodging-house keeper in the Circus, running three houses there.

The hub of the Circus was originally an open piazza. The residents of the Circus created a railed garden at its centre c.1800. The London Planes that now dominate the Circus must have been planted within the next two decades, to judge by their present girth. The late Georgian Circus garden was typical of its time. By the end of the 18th century the concept of central, railed gardens for city squares was well established. John Wood the Elder had planned a formal garden decades earlier for Queen Square. The addition of a garden brought the Circus into closer harmony with Queen Square on the one hand and the rus in urb of the Royal Crescent on the other.

The distinction of the Circus can scarcely be overstated. It was a powerfully original concept in urban planning. It is the centrepiece of an influential assemblage of square, circus and crescent. Although Wood brought the square from London to Bath, the circus and crescent were exported from Bath to London and elsewhere. The work of the Woods had a considerable impact on the British urban landscape.

Further reading

Jean Manco,The Hub of the Circus: The history of the streetscape of the Circus, Bath (Bath and North East Somerset Council 2004), which includes a full bibliography.