John Wood the Elder didn’t live to see his unique ‘Circus’ completed.
He died in 1754 shortly after witnessing the laying of the foundation stone of the first of three blocks of a total of 33 terraced houses.
Together with his son – John Wood the Younger – he left behind some of the city’s showpieces – including the majestic Royal Crescent and Queen Square.
There are those who more recently have felt Bath should do something to honour his contribution to their tourist industry and raise a statue to him.
Tim Mowl – who describes himself as ‘an academic, writer, conservationist and sometime Bath journalist’ – tried to do this a few years ago.
He wanted the man put into the middle of his circular creation for all to see. It’s where Wood had planned to put a statue of King George the Second on horseback but ran out of money.
Watching Britain’s largest cast bronze sculpture arrive by barge in Devon this week has prompted him to put his case to the people of this city again – via Bath Newseum.
“The recent announcement of a nationwide monumental sculpture recording project, together with yesterday’s arrival in Plymouth docks of the massive bronze statue of Messenger, to be sited outside the city’s Theatre Royal, reminded me of my failed attempt to raise a statue in Bath to the architect John Wood, creator of the Georgian city.
That was back in 1989 when I wrote a weekly column on architecture for the Chronicle and when the cult of celebrity had not yet reached the giddy heights of today. I was hopeful, however, but what I would never have anticipated was the barrage of criticism my modest proposal attracted. Genteel voices argued that Bath needed no such commemorative reminders of its famous sons.
I endured a round of countless supper parties hoping to raise funds, only to be met with tipsy intonations of the inscription on Sir Christopher’s Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s – Lector, Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice. If you want to appreciate Wood’s genius then go to The Circus and look around you – how very Bath!
Not that any of them knew about Wood and his deranged ideas about Druids and their stone circles – the imaginative vision which had produced their Georgian city. And that was my point. In spite of itself, Bath had to be made aware of his creative genius.
So, what will the compilers of the Public Monuments & Sculpture Association inventory find when they come to Bath? Precious few commemorative statues to the city’s great and good, apart from that paltry Mozart in Parade Gardens, who had little or nothing to do with Bath.
There is a seventeenth-century statue of Bladud, which surveys the King’s Bath; a dumpy Beau Nash peeps out from a niche in the Pump Room; a diminutive young girl by the Abbey warns us of the dangers of drink, and a po-faced statue of Queen Victoria looks disapprovingly down from the Museum & Art Gallery. And that’s about it.
Where the Georgians raised obelisks in Orange Grove and Queen’s Square to the Prince of Orange and Frederick, Prince of Wales respectively, we have a lifeless, slightly bemused mannequin of Jane Austen on Gay Street.
What about all those who have helped to shape the city over the last millennium – King Edgar, crowned in Bath in 973; Oliver King, Bishop of Bath and Wells, the dreamer of angels, who built the present Abbey; Ralph Allen, quarry owner who supplied the stone for John Wood’s vision; Thomas Gainsborough, who made the city his home and painted its fashionistas; Major Davis, the man who re-invented the city as a tourist destination after he discovered the great Roman Bath in the 1880s; the journalist Adam Fergusson, whose seminal 1973 polemic The Sack of Bath stopped in its tracks the destruction of the artisan quarters of the eighteenth-century city – no more Ballance Street Flats. I could go on.
(An interview l did with Adam Ferguson for an HTV West documentary series on Bath architecture called Set in Stone.)
What John Wood deserves is a bronze statue commanding the centre of the Circus, his cloak billowing in the wind, his arm outstretched with a compass in hand inscribing the circle of his greatest, albeit posthumous, achievement.
That’s what the sculptor Gerald Laing imagined for me in 1989 – I still have one of his drawings of the manically obsessive architect – Amadeus-like – hanging on my Circus Mews walls.
And then perhaps we might start re-siting all the commemorative plaques in the city, many of which are on the wrong houses, especially those to do with Wood and his son around Queen’s Square. “
Thanks for that Tim. What do others think of the idea?
While we are on the subject what is to stop a programme of cleaning our plethora of bronze plaques. I am sure there is a way of bringing them back to a readable condition without doing any harm?
As they stand, few people stop and try and decipher what lies underneath the verdigris and grime.