Pavement Perils

Good to see this piece of graffiti – spotted on the side of the Temple of Minerva in Sydney Gardens – was soon consigned to an (un)recorded history. I won’t be keeping the image either! Bath and North East Somerset Council recently spent £160,000 on new street cleaning machines in the ‘battle’ against litter and graffiti. This little ‘skirmish’ was quite effective. The offending daub was gone within a couple of days.

At this point, for those like me who did not know it, the aforementioned ‘temple’ was constructed to serve as an advertisement for Bath stone during the 1911 Empire Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London. It was designed by a local architect and based on a copy of the Roman pediment discovered in fragments near the Roman Baths in 1790.

According to Brenda Snaddon in her book on the history of the Sydney Pleasure Gardens and entitled ‘The Last Promenade’, when the Empire Exhibition closed the proposal was to set the ‘temple’ up ‘in some suitable spot in Bath which would best display such an ornamental structure’. Brenda said the Parks Committee had argued whether it was worth £288 to Bath, this being the cost of bringing it from London.

In the end it was re-erected in Sydney Gardens without its mosaic pavement, but with a plaque, paid for by the Bath Pageant Committee, who had surplus funds after their huge show in Victoria Park in 1909, and wished to have a memorial of the event.

The Bath Pageant of 1909 is another story to be told elsewhere. An astonishing achievement for the city with over three thousand performers re-enacting it’s ‘magnificent’ history every night for a week in Victoria Park.

Returning to that graffiti-busting machine, apparently it is also very effective in blasting gum from the surface of paving stones. Bath gets around four and a half million visitors every year so you can imagine how much of a pounding that sort of frenzied foot-fall administers each season.

Abbey Churchyard has to be considered the cultural heart of Bath. It’s where people line up for the Roman Baths and Pump Room, or go into the Abbey or wait for a Mayor’s Honorary Guide tour. It’s where they meet each other and listen to music from the street buskers. They eat and chew gum and spill food and drinks. Seagulls and pigeons fly in for the pickings and leave their own markers behind.

The paving stones are not in good condition. They are as crazy as the Abbey Churchyard at mid-day on a hot August week-end. They are cracked and uneven.To make matters worse l hear the gum and graffiti busting giant water pistol is dissolving the old lime mortar between the slabs. It is opening up more areas to water and frost and more cracking.

Just recently l had a chance to catch up with the City’s Heritage Manager Tony Crouch. We were talking about commemorative plaques – and more about that in a future blog – but l did mention the state of the paving slabs. Maybe its time l said to start looking down at our feet and not just up at Georgian terraces and crescents and squares.

Seems while grant aid is sometimes available to help restore iconic architectural hot spots like The CIrcus its hasn’t been there for more ordinary street level repairs and renovations. “We are paid the same to lay paving slabs as they would do in Swindon,” says Tony. “The big difference is that we are looking for pennant paving as opposed to normal concrete. The difference being about ten fold in price.”

Businesses in the city centre have been levied an extra tax for what’s known as business improvement schemes e.g. a machine that gets rid of chewing gum, food marks and bird droppings. It certainly keeps things clean but that high pressure water has been taking out some of the joints.

“Its looking a bit wobbly there in places now and there is a bit of a maintenance job to do to go back and point those and replace any broken slabs.”

In my opinion, with Council budgets being as squeezed as they are, that maintenance may take some time. There are other paving schemes currently taking priority. Including the new pedestrian-enhanced lay-out in the High Street outside the Guildhall. It is also very difficult to wring more money out of businesses that are battling for survival in these recessionary times.

Maybe we should be having a radical re-think about Abbey CHurchyard and its slab covering. With the Abbey hoping to do some major renovation work in the not too distant future, it might be time to share some of the burden of getting this well trodden surface up to scratch. What do you all think?

Bath’s other Pulteney Bridge.


Walking towards my Larkhall home along Walcot Street in Bath l happened to look up towards an oval-shaped blue plaque above a hairdressing salon on the Paragon side of the street. Sandwiched between two windows on an upper floor l read with some astonishment.. “Here lived IK Brunel designer of the Pulteney Bridge.’

Now while this commemorative tablet is little more than a good stone’s throw from the world-famous stone-built structure bearing that name – l was a little confused. That iconic bridge – one of the most photographed bits of Georgian architecture in the city – was surely built by William Johnstone Pulteney to a design by Robert Adam between 1769 and 1774.

While Brunel may have designed some famous bridges of his own – the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol and the Tamar Railway Bridge down Plymouth way to name but two – how could anybody think that this little giant of Victorian engineering had anything to do with the Bath stone built, three-arched structure across the city stretch of the River Avon?

Well of course, he didn’t. The fact l am training to be a member of the Mayor’s Corps of Honorary Guides helped me solve this conundrum in spectacular fashion. Amongst all the rules and regulations passed my way by my mentors came a copy of “Guidelines” – an annual magazine given to guides and containing lots of interesting articles and bits of research carried out by individuals.

Opening my copy, from March 2012, l saw on page four an article by Kim Jordan and Collin Carr entitled “Pulteney Road Railway Bridge Past and Present.” Of course. That’s it!

Brunel may have stayed in Walcot Street at some point but the Pulteney Bridge he designed was further across the city and forming part of his amazing Great Western Railway which was to link the West Country with London. Brunel’s railway bridge spans Pulteney Road. The original structure he designed stood from 1841 until replaced by the present one in 1975. The orignal bridge was admired by many for its elegance but its narrow central arch became a traffic bottleneck as the volume on the road beneath it increased.

I for one have learned something from all of this. Bath has not one but two Pulteney Bridges and both of them opened up pathways to the future.

The one across the River Avon meant the Bathwick Estate on the other side could be developed. The one across Pulteney Road was but one of many spans that

helped drive the railways south westwards and bring goods and people closer together.

An artistic diversion to Bristol to canvas support for a forgotten treasure!

This is a blog about William Hogarth – an artist with no Bath connection other than his depicting the dire consequences of gambling and ‘whoring’ in his moralistic series of artworks known as The Rake’s Progress. He has a much bigger connection with Bristol in the form of three rather large canvasses that were produced as part of his efforts to be known as a history painter. I repeat a blog, published elsewhere a couple of months ago, as an aside for the Virtual Museum of Bath.

There is no denying the fact that the National Lottery has helped make gambling respectable. All those pound coins cast by millions of dreamers into the great Fountain of Eternal Hope with the consolation that, if you don’t win a fortune, at least some worthwhile charity or focus-of-need will benefit from that myriad of ‘little somethings’ and get a cut of the proceeds!

In Bristol lottery funds cushioned a fair wack of the £27 million it cost to give the old Industrial Museum ( and former 1950’s quay-side warehouse) a very expensive make-over. Money well spent, says the City Council, who point out that, less than a year after the new M Shed opened, it’s already welcomed nearly three quarters of a million visitors. This of course is latest the attraction to adorn their watery residential ‘pleasure park’ and one which tells the story of the city and its people in a fun and strikingly visual way.

Finding novel and compelling ways of experiencing the past in the present is big business at the moment as, increasingly, Western Society finds it difficult to get excited about a fraught and uncertain future. Bristol can pride itself on being rather good at re-inventing things – although sometimes very reluctantly. Further along the Floating Harbour – itself a major historical make-over from a once thriving but rather grimey city dock – the award-laden ss Great Britain rests on both its blocks and laurels. When it was floated up the River Avon into Bristol – back in 1970 – it was a rusty old hulk the City Fathers were convinced would sink and block this vital artery to the sea.

Her return was thanks to a few brave souls with enough foresight to see that this Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed and Bristol-built, ocean-going, propellor-driven, iron-clad steamer would one day justify the expense of the longest marine tow in history. Back across the ocean from its graveyard in the remote waters of the Falkland Islands. The ship could be said to have kick-started the steady transformation of what had been a watery slum. After years of turning our backs on the deserted coal wharves and timber yards we embraced the new-found joys of waterside living and socialising.

M-Shed is also the latest in a cluster of satellite museums scattered around the city. And a big financial gamble in these times of frugality and irate council tax payers, maybe more concerned about essentials like housing, education and public transport.There is already a well-established City Museum and Art Gallery. The place – two summers ago – that witnessed amazing queues as people waited for up to six hours to view the exhibition by local-born, graffiti-artist Banksy. Add to that the Blaise Castle Folk Museum, the Red Lodge with its Tudor panelling, and the Georgian House.

Up to ten years ago there was yet another ‘satellite’ in the Heritage portfolio. This time an Ecclesiastical Museum – created out of the Blitz-burned shell of St Nicholas Church. It closed in 1991 – a victim, even then, of council cuts. However, while the church plate, illuminated manuscripts and vestments were relatively easy to move elsewhere, one rather large piece of Bristol’s history is proving a major embarrassment, and a big obstacle, to disposing of the redundant church and – with the City maybe looking to make some savings – wfforts to recoup some money.

Looking down on the filing cabinets and bookshelves the building now contains is a giant painted Altarpiece. Eight hundred square feet of canvas. Three separate but linked monster-sized paintings from the brush of one William Hogarth (1697-1764) – English artist, engraver, satirist and social critic. A work commissioned originally for another city church that may be the most unloved and unwanted masterpiece in history! One wonders – 20 years after the Church Museum closed whether anyone wants it or knows what to do with it. But before l move on and attempt to answer that – I’d better explain how Hogarth came to paint it and how its been moved around the city over the centuries like a giant game of ‘pass the parcel.’

He was , of course, the artist who came up with an original way of engaging with narrative art. The man who produced several series of paintings – reading like a morality comic strip – that often used humor and wit to illustrate the follies and vices of contemporary society. Hogarth’s prints and his portrait painting made his reputation and gave him a living. However this painter had ambitions in another direction, as a crusading Englishman who was determined to give his Continental artistic counterparts a run for their money.

He wanted to make his name as a history painter and prove that he, and his countrymen, were just as talented when it came to working in the European ‘Grand Manner’. So when, in the summer of 1755, the Vestry of St Mary Redcliffe Parish Church in Bristol invited him to paint a large altar-piece for their church, he jumped at the chance.

Though ‘history painting’ was regarded as the highest form of the art, there weren’t many opportunities in England for gaining commissions. Large-scale religious paintings weren’t a popular way of inspiring devotion in our more formal and Protestant-fuelled land. We had no ‘native’ school of history painting. In the mid 1730’s Hogarth decided to do his own ‘advertising’ and offered his services free of charge to the governors of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, in an effort to stop the job being awarded to an Italian painter. Hogarth produced two stunning religious murals, with figures seven feet high, on the walls of a staircase leading to the hospital’s Great Hall. Ten years later he organized a gift of four ‘home-produced’ history paintings to the Foundling Hospital, one of which he had created himself.

But his exercise in self-promotion met with limited success. Apart from the Bristol altar-piece, he had only one more giant canvas to show in support of his argument that English painters could achieve the same qualities of intellectual dignity and greatness of style as those in France or Italy. In 1748 he painted St Paul before Felix for the Chapel of Lincoln’s Inn – though it proved to be too big and was hung in the Hall instead.

The paintings for Bristol proved a little on the large size too when they were eventually hung above the altar of the medieval parish church of St Mary Redcliffe. Only the Ascension was visible from the nave – hung under crimson draperies and slightly higher than the two side panels – featuring The Three Marys at the Tomb and The Sealing of the Sepulcher – placed at right angles to it and facing each other.

There Hogarth’s altarpiece stayed for a hundred years until changing tastes in architecture and a huge bill for urgent restoration work sent it off to wander around Bristol for 115 years. The Gothic Revival of the mid-Victorian age had no place for such Georgian baroque embellishments which many considered spoilt the appearance of so many medieval churches. In Bristol, St Mary’s wanted, amongst other things, to re-build its spire – demolished during a storm in the fifteenth century. It hoped the sale of the three giant canvasses might contribute towards the £40,000 they needed.

Letters were exchanged with the National Gallery and Christies Auction Rooms ( founded in 1766 – two years after Hogarth’s death), and advertisements placed in The Times and in local newspapers, but without a buyer coming forward. Seems both the size of the canvasses and their subject matter was working against them. Despite the fact that Christies had sold Hogarth’s series of satirical paintings Marriage a la Mode in 1797 for 1,000 guineas. They now hang in the National Gallery.

The man who finally helped find the unwanted altarpiece its first new home was Alderman Thomas Proctor – a local businessman and churchwarden who owned a fertilizer manufacturing plant near St Mary’s – and who now chaired the church restoration committee to which he donated two and a half thousand pounds of his own money. In 1858 he offered to buy the canvasses for a nominal £20 and present them to the Royal Academy for the Promotion of the Fine Arts to look after. A prestigious and private art establishment with at least one gallery wall big enough to take Hogarth’s giant canvasses.

But this is not the end of our story. The Academy – now the RWA – tried to sell the altarpiece in 1910 to raise cash for new building work. The building was in need of restoration work and the Academy preferred its walls covered with more contemporary and home-grown art.

The pictures were taken down, rolled up and put on show in London. Bristol’s local press lambasted the Academy for ‘preferring hard cash to art treasures’ and public opinion saved the day. For lack of display space and a refusal from St Mary’s to have them returned, the giant altar paintings went back into storage. The rolled canvasses spent their war in the basement of the City Art Gallery. There they lay forgotten – at least until 1953 when a former Sheriff of Bristol suggested the paintings be installed in the city’s impressive new Council House on College Green. You’ve guessed it already. They were just too big. By this time Hogarth’s artwork was being stored in a bonded tobacco warehouse. The biggest and most expensive ‘roll-up’ in the building.

Two years later and finally a deal was done for the altarpiece to hang ‘in perpetuity’ in the Bristol’s Corporation’s Art Gallery, that’s after first being sent to the National Gallery in London for restoration and re-hanging. Incidentally, it happened to be the first job for the newly appointed chief restorer Arthur Lucas who would go on to win fame and controversy for his work on Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. The altar paintings were re-erected as an impressive backdrop in the Art Gallery’s two-storey high Wills Hall and – at an opening ceremony that coincided with the meeting of the British Association in Bristol – a senior keeper from the British Museum described the triptych as “the last great monument of Baroque painting in the country, and surely one of the most splendid pieces of religious art to have been executed by an Englishman since the Reformation.”

There had been post-war plans, meanwhile, to build a new museum and art gallery complex on space cleared by enemy bombs in the historic centre of the city and beside the River Avon. However, when rising costs brought an end to this proposal, the Council re-kindled its vague interest in using the old blitzed shell of St Nicholas Church, at one end of the proposed site, as a church museum. Once more the canvasses were taken down and sent for restoration. They were then erected at the east end of the newly converted building – a rather large reminder of the city’s more flamboyant ecclesiastical past. They are still there – looking down now on computer screens and filing cabinets. The museum has become office space for museum services.Very few people ring the door bell and ask to see them. For the trickle of callers, there is a viewing platform – so as not to disturb those now using the church floor as a workspace.

It is my understanding the Council may be exploring ways of getting rid of this unwanted real estate. They cannot demolish the building – its listed – and the giant canvasses are a bit of a sticking point. I have privately asked a London art dealer to place a value on them. He was a student in Bristol and knows the work. Limited by its size and genre he said he could see it raising no more than a million pounds. Getting rid of the building may prove easier but who would want it with Hogarth’s canvasses still in situ?

Some may ask whether the new harbourside museum should have found room for it and acknowledged its place in the city’s history? Who else has a wall big enough to hang it? St Mary Redcliffe does not want it back and nor does the RWA. Or maybe some people feel – with the opening of M Shed and the transfer to it of artifacts from elsewhere, it may have freed up space to put it back on display at the old City Museum at the top of Park Street.

That, according to Julie Finch, the City’s Director of Museums, Galleries and Archives, is now exactly what they have in mind. It seems the Hogarth is now considered part of a wider plan for the redevelopment of the City Museum and Art Gallery and they intend keeping the paintings as part of the collection as they are ‘important to Bristol’.

Whatever happens. Dismantling the canvasses and transporting and re-erecting them once more is going to cost a great deal of money. However, leaving them alone in a building that could be better used by someone else offers no long-term solution. I’d welcome some other views on the subject. After all – grand bank and insurance buildings in Corn Street have been transformed into bars and pizza houses with many original fittings still in situ. But if you feel that’s a better solution for this little ‘problem’ – just mind where you’re shaking that bottle of tomato sauce!

A clash of colour in the Crescent!

A clash of colour in the Crescent!

Forty years ago this year the redoubtable and formidable Miss Amabel Wellesley-Colley took on the might of Bath Corporation and the Bath Preservation Trust and  dared to put a blot on a world-famous Georgian architectural masterpiece. This little lady – a direct descendant of the Duke of Wellington – lived at number 22 Royal Crescent and  found herself tripping over the toes of propriety when she decided to brighten up her front door and sash windows with some Primrose Yellow paint and matching blinds.

Royal Crescent

Royal Crescent

Never did a hue cause such a hue (and cry)  as this colourful front entrance standing out as sore as a thumb amongst the various shades of more agreeable white and natural wood doors fronting the other 29 units which make up this Grade 1 listed, John Wood Junior-built world-famous crescent.

Me on the Royal Crescent lawn in 1971.

Me on the Royal Crescent lawn in 1971.

I was a young reporter at HTV West at the time and well remember standing in front of the offending door to tell viewers how this rather eccentric lady was standing firm behind her proverbial sandbags in defence of her freedom of choice. Bravely digging in to fight two Enforcement Orders insisting she restored the door to its original colour and removed the yellow blinds. The Council said both substantially altered the appearance of an historic building of great importance. The yellow door detracted from the appearance of the Royal Crescent and there had been complaints.  Another salvo was fired off from the Preservation Trust – near neighbours at Number 1 – who  thought her choice of paint ‘most regrettable’.

Minor  legal skirmishes turned into one final  major battle. Miss Wellesley-Colley’s  Waterloo was her appearance before  a public inquiry and a ruling from the Secretary of State for the Environment. Seven hundred pounds lighter and several weeks later her appeal against the Council’s order was upheld. The door stayed yellow.

Forty years on and the current owners of number 22 are thinking about re-painting the front door but – don’t worry – it is going to stay yellow. Mr Stephen Little – a retired race-course bookmaker – has lived at the terraced house for nineteen years with his wife and two sons. He told me he used to pass the famous yellow door when they went on walking tours of the city. “It was one of those sights of Bath but l never dreamed that l would end up buying the house.”

Stephen says there is nothing in the deeds that says the door has to remain yellow but they decided to continue the tradition and have already repainted it twice. “I must say it is overdue for painting now as it is rather faded.”

The Little’s intend staying with the colour. “I think changing the colour now would create as much of an outcry as Miss Wellesley Colley received when she first decided to defy the authorities.

Bath’s open top tour buses no longer crawl past the Crescent front as opposition from home owners and high-end ratepayers forced a route diversion  but Stephen does remember the day one bus guide stopped his  vehicle and came and knocked on his door. “We were in the process of re-painting the front door and had got as far as applying a white undercoat. The tour guide wanted to know if he was no longer going to be able to point us out now to tourists. I had to reassure him it was only an undercoat and the yellow door would be back once the paint had dried.”

I have a feeling that while one yellow door is being tolerated and has – in a way – become  part of the historical story of Royal Crescent – any other deviation from white or natural would not go down too well with the powers that be. Amabel Wellesley-Colley has long since departed to meet her ancestors and there is no bronze plaque on number 22 to record this colourful caper but some might say it is good to see the occasional outbreak of individuality in a Heritage City famous for its Georgian balance, proportion and harmony.

Beau Street Hoard: A new Roman treasure for Bath?

I am currently following the British Museum blog which is carrying frequent reports on its lengthy operation to separate and clean the hundreds of Roman coins discovered during archaeological work on a Bath building site.

A hoard of coins was found in Beau Street in a corner of an excavated Roman building. This is a site very close to two of the city’s three hot springs and where a 19th century hospital building is being converted into a five star hotel.

It looks as though the coins had been deliberately hidden. They seemed to have been buried in a stone-lined box. The hoard was pretty fused together and is being carefully taken apart at the British Museum. The coins seem to have been contained in half a dozen leather pouches. So far the latest coin discovered dates to 274AD.

Stephen Clews, who is the Manager of the Roman Baths and Pump Room in the city, has posted on the British Museum blog. He says it is hoped the hoard can be acquired and put on prominent display in a gallery devoted to the story of Aquae Sulis – the Roman name for Bath. The Roman Baths Museum is working to raise the money for the acquisition.

This is a story worth following on the British Museum blog!

Virtual Museum of Bath

ImageLocal  historian Andrew Swift has been writing about Bath’s bankside relationship with the River Avon. He think there is under-developed potential to tap to let this waterway flowing through the heart of our Heritage City play a greater role in terms of leisure and the environment. He goes on to mention (Bath Observer, August 2012) that the Newark Works, one of Bath’s old industrial giants sitting on the riverside, could be the hub of a cultural quarter that could include a Museum of Bath.

As a newcomer to these parts – I know Bath but have never lived here before – l have to agree that is a facility sadly lacking in a urban world heritage site chock-full of museums. We celebrate Georgian building methods, Bath’s industrial past, the history of costume, and the public showing of private collections of art – Western and Eastern – but no where is there a museum dedicated to the city itself. Something that provides an inclusive essence of its past, its people and its social history. A facility that would also act as a living collector of physical and collective memory resources that will continue to store and display the development of this wonderful place.

I applaud and support any effort to get such a facility off the ground but, in the meantime, am setting out to provide a Virtual version of the real thing. I will be blogging about many things concerning the city and its history and its contemporary status. I am hoping my Virtual Museum will become known to many others who might like to contribute too.

I am stating the aims of this Virtual Museum of Bath blog before l get down to some serious planning. I just want to get my first blog out there!