Obsession: John Wood & the Creation of Georgian Bath

Talk chaired by Judy Partridge

Amy Frost,

Exhibition Curator, Building of Bath Museum

11 March 2004

The basis of the lecture was to introduce the Exhibition at the Building of Bath Museum from 7th September 2004 to 6th February 2005 to the audience. To ensure that not too much of the details were given away, (we need to save something for the exhibition itself), I concentrated on explaining how the exhibition has evolved, where the idea came from, and most importantly why it is called what it is.

2004 is the tercentenary of the birth of John Wood the Elder, the man who’s vision created the city we live in today. It is also the 250th anniversary of his death, and thus incredibly appropriate that this year the story of this man be told and his work be given the celebration that it deserves. The career of John Wood is a balance between what was an incredibly esoteric vision for Bath and a speculative, entrepreneurial business venture. This combination of imagination and moneymaking schemes must always be remembered when considering Wood’s achievements in Bath. John Wood was a man of great vision, with grand schemes and big ideas all working towards celebrating the glory of what he believed to be a magnificent ancient British city. According to Wood, this city built by King Bladud and triangular in shape stretched from Stonehenge, to Stanton Drew and right down to Wookey Hole! An enormous city that could rival any of its counterparts from Classical antiquity, it was the magnificence of this ancient Bath that Wood sought to restore. And he set about achieving this by embarking on a vision for Bath that he supposedly had in 1725, during the period he was working as a young and relatively inexperienced architect in both London and Yorkshire.

The title of the exhibition is not purely copied from the title of Tim Mowl’s book! We racked our brains to come up with something that would convey all the ideas behind Wood’s work in Bath, and every time it came back to this one word, Obsession. John Wood was obsessed with architecture, obsessed with its origins, its development and with using it to create bold, magnificent and elegant spaces. He became obsessed with antiquarianism; with the monuments of ancient Britain and their place in the development of British architecture. Finally, he was obsessed with the symbolism and ritual of Freemasonry, infusing his last great work, the Circus, with designs and images that his educated audience of Freemasons would recognise, while simultaneously staking his own claim to be recognised as one of them. Through all these obsessions the exhibition becomes not just a display of historic facts, but more importantly a tool to illustrate ideas, theories and philosophies. This offer us the perfect opportunity redesign the permanent gallery at the Building of Bath Museum, and hopefully create something that will surprise visitors, and attempt to live up to the vision of Bath’s greatest architect.

Amy Frost