Wood the Elder: misconception into architectural genius

Each year BRLSI holds the John Wood Architectural Lecture, to celebrate the father and son (both named John Wood) who designed so many of Bath’s great buildings. Recent subjects have includes Urban Landscapes and the future of Bath, but this year it was actually about a John Wood (the elder, 1704-54), whose credits include the Royal Crescent, the Circus and Queen Square, home of BRLSI.
The speaker was Prof Richard Hingley of Durham University, who introduced himself as not an architectural historian but an archaeologist, interested primarily in times earlier than the 18th century. John Wood, it turned out, had similar interests, and therein lay the evening’s subject. Wood was a great instinctive architect, but he didn’t come from a wealthy family and consequently wasn’t classically educated. This led him to develop some fairly wild historical theories, for which he was roundly condemned (and remains so today), but which also inspired his unique designs for Bath.
Wood believed that the Britons of pre-Roman times, far from being the savages portrayed in Roman accounts, were in fact a highly civilised people who built better marble temples than the Greeks. Their chief architect, he thought, was Bladud, the mythical figure credited with discovering the healing powers of Bath’s hot springs. Wood also believed that in pre-Roman times Bath had been the most important city in Britain.
That wasn’t all that John Wood got (almost certainly) wrong. When he began his first building project in Bath c. 1728 he discovered the remains of Roman buildings under the streets, but thought they were pre-Roman British structures. And with a neat symmetry he made beautifully measured drawings of Stonehenge, which he thought was Roman. So how did someone so wrong about so many things get his buildings so right that we still stare in wonder at them today?
This, Prof Hingley told us, was Wood’s genius – his ability to synthesise architectural triumph from a disastrous mis-reading of history. Wood designed in the Palladian style, based (indirectly) on classical Greek and Roman architecture (which he believed to be British), but was also influenced by the circles of Stonehenge, Stanton Drew and elsewhere, which he believed to be in the Roman tradition. Without realising it he combined Classical and Megalithic architectures, and the results were the curved crescents and Circus, unique at the time and still items of World Heritage today. As Prof HIngley pointed out, if Wood had had a ‘proper’ education it would probably never have happened.

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