Georgian Bath

Thomas Rowlandson, The Pump Room 1798 Aquatint of the Pump Room in 1804 by J.C.Nattes.During the Georgian period, Bath burst out of the cramped confines of its medieval walls in a great spurt of new building. Elegant terraces snaked out across the surrounding hills capturing between them stretches of countryside that became the parks and gardens of an outstandingly lovely city. This explosive growth was fuelled by Bath's phenomenal popularity as a spa.

The Corporation was slow to perceive the need for development and it was left to enterprising individuals to respond to the obvious demand. John Wood the elder was the architect of vision who set the pattern for others to follow. Leasing tracts of land outside the city walls, he planned Queen Square, the Parades and the Circus as speculative ventures. Wood conceived buildings with the grandeur of palaces but the convenience of a row of private houses. Individual plots were leased to building tradesmen, who could arrange interiors to suit a variety of tenants, provided they conformed to Wood's façades of uniform splendour.

Watercolour of Queen Square by Thomas Malton 1784 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)Wood was an enthusiast for the Palladian revival then sweeping through British architecture and one of its most notable provincial figures. The movement sought a return to the purity of classical principles after the excesses of the Baroque and produced a number of pattern-books, which could be used as guides by the local builders who followed Wood's example. Palladian Bath therefore rose as an architectural unity, though planned by no one hand. It was the creation of local men using local materials, the warm Bath Stone supplied by Combe Down quarries owned by the wealthy philanthropist Ralph Allen.

As the spacious streets of the Georgian Upper Town spread out around it, the tightly packed ancient core of the city became congested. In 1789 the Bath Improvement Act gave the City Council powers to purchase, demolish and rebuild. Its target was the heart of the spa: the baths, Pump Room and their approaches. The City Surveyor, Thomas Baldwin, drew up plans for a fitting centre to the Georgian city, though departing from strictly Palladian precepts. His magnificent façades are softened by delicate decoration in the style of Robert Adam. A new, broad, colonnaded Bath Street linked the rebuilt Cross Bath and Grand Pump Room in an impressive ensemble.

But architectural renewal could not halt the process of decline; the heyday of the spa had passed. Bath's very popularity had killed it as a fashionable resort. As the middle classes flocked to the city, the glamour of exclusivity was lost. Gradually the ebb and flow of seasonal visitors bringing with them the sparkle of London life gave way to a staider air as Bath became a favoured retirement home for those seeking an inexpensive gentility. After 1800, the seaside resorts gained in popularity and Bath slipped from its pinnacle. But a boom century has left a remarkable architectural legacy. Bath is unique in being almost entirely Georgian; here the tastes of that elegant age are given their finest urban expression.

First published in Ordnance Survey Historical Map and Guide: Georgian Bath (1988).