Pulteney Bridge

Pulteney Bridge (Photo Bath and North East Somerset Council)

Pulteney Bridge is one of the most admired buildings in a beautiful city.

Pulteney Bridge is one of only four bridges lined with shops in the world, but Robert Adam's creation has more than novelty value. His graceful composition is one of the unqualified successes of English Palladianism and provides the perfect integrating link between two halves of a Palladian city.

Across the River Avon from Bath lay the 600 acre estate of Bathwick. This was entirely rural when it was inherited by Frances Pulteney in October 1767, but its potential was obvious. No other English spa could rival Bath in this period and the city was in the midst of a building boom. Frances was married to an Edinburgh lawyer, William Johnstone Pulteney, and this energetic and frugal Scot immediately began to make plans to develop his wife's estate. His first problem was that the only direct route from Bath to Bathwick was by ferry. By February 1768, he was conferring with Bath City Council about a new bridge. At first Pulteney contemplated just a simple, functional bridge, designed by a local architect, but by the summer of 1770 the brothers Adam were involved and the plans had undergone a dramatic change.

Pulteney Bridge by Thomas Malton 1785 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)Pulteney had approached the Adams with his new town in Bathwick in mind. We may guess that Robert Adam then suggested putting shops on the bridge. He had visited both Florence and Venice, where he would have seen the ancient Ponte Vecchio and the striking Ponte di Rialto. But the most direct influence on Adam was clearly Andrea Palladio's rejected design for the Rialto. Stripped of its heavier ornamentation, this tribute to ancient Rome emerged from Adam's hands as the coolest of English understatements.

England also had housed bridges of medieval origin, but by the 18th century these were being seen as impediments to traffic. Adam's designs therefore caused some consternation in Bath. The Corporation, who had not been consulted, wrote to Pulteney in protest. They evidently thought it perverse that after London and Bristol had cleared their bridges of houses, he was proposing to bring this outdated phenomenon to Bath. But Pulteney remained adamant. Perhaps the prospect of the bridge paying for itself through shop rents appealed to his love of economy.

Pulteney Bridge by Thomas Malton 1779 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath) Adam planned a row of eleven small shops on each side, with staircases to attics above. Lofty Venetian windows formed the centrepiece of his design for the river façades, while matching Venetian doors faced the street. These were echoed in a pattern of recessed, columned windows, creating an interesting play of light and shadow for passers-by. Malton's aquatint gives us our only view of these lovely street façades, subsequently much altered.

Pulteney Bridge was complete and ready for occupation in late 1773, but tenants were slow to come forward. The shock of the American War of Independence had fallen like an axe on Bath's development. The plans for Bathwick were shelved and for many years, Adam's elegant and urbane bridge led out onto meadows, rather than a Palladian townscape. When building eventually began in March 1788, it was Thomas Baldwin, a Bath architect, who provided the detailed plans. Pulteney Bridge was left as Adam's only work in Bath.

Pulteney at least had the tact to see Adam to his grave before desecrating his handiwork. On 26 March 1792, less than a month after Adam's death, a lease of most of the bridge was granted, with Baldwin's plans for conversion to larger shops. The roof was raised and the windows transformed into bays. No doubt it all made sound commercial sense, but Adam's street elevations were utterly ruined.

This was just the first of many distortions of Adam's original vision. Disaster struck in September 1799, when a pier gave way after high floods. The remaining pier collapsed when the river rose in a great storm in November 1800. The houses on the north side were so badly damaged that Pulteney seriously considered dismantling the whole structure and building a single-span iron bridge, designed by his protégé Thomas Telford. But in the end only the north side was rebuilt. Adam's pavilions were reduced to token pediments, but at least the design had unity.

The north side of Pulteney Bridge in 1872 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath) It was not to last. 19th-century shopkeepers altered windows, or cantilevered out over the river as the fancy took them. By 1948, the buildings had become pathetic travesties of the original design, as Walter Ison sadly noted.

But the tide was already on the turn. Bath City Council showed concern to retain the Adam features of the bridge as early as 1903, when the south-west pavilion had to be moved. In January 1936, Pulteney Bridge was scheduled as a national monument. The Council already owned a few of the shops on it; now they bought the rest and the following year the City Surveyor carefully traced Adam's own plans and designed a restored façade.

But war intervened. The restoration was finally executed in time for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Then in 1975 the Georgian Group partially restored the southern street facade to mark European Architectural Heritage Year. Now the restored bridge is a delight to photographers and one of the enduring images of Bath that visitors take away with them.

First published in Bath City Life.

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