The Pevsner Architectural Guide to Bath

A lecture by Dr Michael Forsyth
on 5 December 2003.

Dr Forsyth, Director of the M.Sc. course in the Conservation of Historic Buildings at the University of Bath, began his talk with an outline of the work in Britain of Nikolaus Pevsner. Pevsner was a German refugee who wanted to survey, record and publish on every building of architectural significance in England. He attempted that between 1951 and 1974, through publishing 46 volumes of studies. He died in 1983. Each county was introduced with reference to its landscape and geology, characterising each county for its buildings. Pevsner expected each study to be revised and updated later. The thirty or so pages relating to Bath came in a section of the North Somerset and Bristol volume published in 1958, which described then a postwar city in which the bombed-out Assembly Rooms were but a shell. A new series of city guides is now being published, in order to widen readership while maintaining the scholarship of the Pevsner series. The original Penguin publishers are replaced by Yale University Press and the Bath Guide contains 330 pages, over 100,000 words and 180 integrated illustrations.

Pevsner, who became a Professor at both London and Cambridge, a member of the Fine Arts Commission and Chairman of the Victorian Society, was very busy through his working life. Nevertheless, he set aside one month in university vacations for studies of each county, travelling round with a driver, working seven days each week from early morning until late evening and staying in cheap accommodation. He then spent one week writing introductions and two fulltime research assistants were employed to check facts and backgrounds to his observations. However, typists had difficulty, since his handwritten notes were in a problematic style. His work was often impeded after 1969 when he was knighted, because earlier anonymity was replaced by recognition, which led others to divert his attentions. Dr Forsyth illustrated various hardback and softback editions of his works at various prices which were published over the years.

After mentioning correspondence between Pevsner and enquirers, the speaker observed that Pevsner only discussed prominent Bath buildings, that some finer architectural features and other aspects, including whole villages, were not covered by him locally. In order to amplify cover, Dr Forsyth combined archival research with onsite investigations, securing much help from societies and other local sources. He noted that progressive developments over the centuries have left little beyond the Roman remains of pre-17th century Bath. In a few places there are vestiges of some medieval and later buildings, such as ‘Sally Lunns’ and its neighbour, now dated at 1622. Some light on developments can be thrown by documents, such as the Survey of Old Bath. There is evidence of original roads and boundaries, for example. In Anglo-Saxon Bath a corner of the present High Street was its market-place, whereas Cheap Street and Westgate Street were its main thoroughfares. Little lanes, such as Bilberry Lane, are sometimes now excavated. When the Priory and Abbey were built in the Middle Ages, Stall Street was established. Medieval farm tracks outside city walls became Milsom Street, George Street and the Paragon. Julian Road originated from a Roman extension of the Fosse Way. Medieval field patterns, often based upon water courses, produced the twisting streets of Oldfield Park. Later, in Victorian times, Bath became an important industrial city, but in endeavours to promote it as a spa resort, authorities omitted mention of that and its areas of great poverty and diseases in guide books.

Dr Forsyth then illustrated some omissions and mistakes by Pevsner. The latter thought the route from the Circus to the Royal Crescent represented planning by John Wood derived from landscaping principles, but there is evidence that Wood planned buildings to block the end of Brock Street. Pevsner also failed to note that John Wood, who believed that the Greeks had derived their inspirations from the Druids, had based his vision of the Circus upon that reflection. Wood made its diameter similar to that of Stonehenge and placed symbols such as acorns on Circus buildings. The Royal Crescent also probably reflects a fusion of ideas derived from the Druids and theatres.

Modern studies can now correct misinterpretations and add features not developed in Pevsner’s time, such as the conservation work being carried out for example recently on the Palladian Bridge in Prior Park and the Beckford Tower on Lansdown. Other additions in the new guide concern the importance of shopping in Bath life since the 18th century and Dr Forsyth illustrated and discussed features of remaining shop fronts. The walks promoted in the book invite its readers to review both the external and some of the internal architectural features of many Bath sites – roundels, friezes and even the author’s own dining room ( having associations with Sir John Soane) being illustrated. Industrial buildings, often on waterfronts, such as the coal wharfs at Widcombe and bridges made locally and at Coalbrookdale, were illustrated. Nationally important Italianate villas at the top of Bathwick Hill and St Alphage in Oldfield Park, which was built by Sir Giles Gilbert-Scott in the 1920s and is a fine Italianate basilica with distinctive light fittings, were not visited or reported by Pevsner. Also illustrated were some good modern buildings built recently which are also considered in the new book, including the Herman Miller factory, the Kingswood Preparatory School in Sion Hill Place, the University Library extension and the new Wessex Water building.

Dr Forsyth concluded his review with some comments upon the Introduction to the new book, which was written after the text was complete. This occupies almost one quarter of the book and the author expressed his pleasure arising from the opportunity afforded to reflect on and characterize Bath from the amassed evidence. Topics of particular interest, such as the way in which terracing coped with Bath hills, could be discussed in panels inserted into the text and those on interesting ironwork were illustrated by the speaker. The book illustrations could cover many of the details required for a portable pocket book.

He was questioned on many aspects of particular buildings and their decorative features in various parts of Bath, including Ralph Allen’s Town House, which he thought a ‘caprice’ only doubtfully designed by John Wood. Questioned on the size and nature of the new guide ( the second of the series), its author replied that its form was dictated by consideration of a ‘balance between portability and comprehensiveness’. Further, the history of postwar Bath gets considerable attention – e.g. the development of Snow Hill as a model housing scheme on the Swedish pattern and the conservation policy followed after the extensive demolitions undertaken before 1973. Grading examples and policy were then extensively discussed with questioners. For example, Gay Street buildings were given Grade One status not for their individual qualities but for their ‘group value’, as a set piece of town planning which was integral to the route from Queen Square to the Crescent – making the whole an item of world importance, in fact. The recent history of the Assembly Rooms, questions on curtilege and glazing bars, etc were also discussed in some detail, as were conservation policies.

( After the lecture a copy of the new guide was obtained by the Institution for reference purposes)

Geoffrey Catchpole