In my essay today, I am going to be accounting for the ways in which public spaces changed in Bath from the Restoration in 1660 (English, Scottish and Irish monarchies restored under Charles II). So how that initial change took place, and what shape it took. This was a period marked by agricultural productivity and surpluses, expanding trade, both overseas and inland, the diversification of England’s industrial base, and a buoyant home market of rising national incomes. It was a period of relative prosperity which allowed towns throughout England to generate and attract new resources of wealth. Indeed, some of these found their way into the physical fabric of these towns, transforming them, particularly their wealthier commercial and residential areas.
In Bath, but also in cities throughout England, traditional vernacular urban landscapes were slowly being filtered out and replaced by a more modern, fashionable, classical one.
In some cases, this change happened swiftly. Such as after the Great Fire of London in 1666. But in most cases, classicism arrived bit by bit. Slowly, the vernacular street disappeared and a relatively unified classical one took shape. In some rapidly expanding centres whole new streets and even squares were built, but these were most likely exceptions.
So how do we account for this gradual change? Well, in pre-industrial societies, the great majority of incomes were largely paid out to provide necessities. But, in the later 17th Century the new economic context meant that there was an increasingly large number of prosperous townsmen who, in many cases for the first time, had money to spare. They looked to the gentry society and used their surpluses to try and pursue the culture, status and power of which they were so envious.
With the convergence of the culture of these wealthy townsmen and the national elite came the abandonment of popular beliefs and practices for those associated with the prestigious culture of the European Renaissance. In building terms this meant the rejection of vernacular architecture for classicism which modified the façade of the traditional urban dwellings. But developments went beyond the individual house. There was a growing sense of a wider landscape in which buildings had to relate to each other. The most marked examples of this were the emergence of a terrace, the square and of various forms of town planning. The adoption of classicism was effectively a pursuit of a new cultural experience. Three features define classicism, and are at odds with those in vernacular architecture: internationalism, idealism and theory.
The first point, internationalism, is particularly key in my opinion. In adopting Renaissance architecture contemporaries were effectively rejecting the pull of locality. They were giving up what they had sought to cling on to for such a long time. Classicism, unlike vernacular architecture, was a standardized form, a universal language of sorts, which did not vary from town to town. In a world in which local ties and values had been so important, it would be difficult to stress how new and fascinating the ‘cosmopolitan’ implications of such a culture might be. It was a trend which everyone (who had the means to) tried to join.
The first signs of urban classicism appeared in London in the early 17th century and then filtered out to the Provinces. The influence of London as a symbol for international culture is reflected in the North Side of John Wood’s Queen Square in Bath. With its highly influential palatial front, it alludes to plans for Cavendish and Grosvenor Squares in London.
picture of woods square
What this picture shows is a clear breaking away from the vernacular architecture that preceded classicism, whereby houses were built for function, to resist the elements. What is clear, is that appearance was the main concern in the...