Friday, September 17, 2010

Bath, Somerset

Windows on the world

Every time I go to Bath I marvel at its Georgian architecture. The way both individual buildings and the larger plan of the town, the sense of both architectural and urban space, have survived into the 21st century is simply glorious. And the place is very well looked after, so its survival looks secure.

There’s so much to see in a place like Bath that the eye doesn’t know where to look next. At one moment the visitor is trying to take in an entire sweeping terrace or crescent, the next focusing on some detail – a door surround, say, a carved street name, a bit of ironwork. All of which can make it easy to miss things, such as how some of these buildings, beautifully preserved though they are, have been altered over the years.

Look at these two houses, part of a sequence that steps its way majestically up Gay Street. Most of my readers will notice quickly one difference between them. The windows of the house on the left still have their small panes, four up and three across, while the windows on the right have been converted to plate glass. All expect for the small unregarded windows in the attic and basement – the ‘low status’ servant-haunted parts of the house, which the Victorians did not think worthy of clear, shiny, plate-glass windows.

Examine the right-hand house more closely and you’ll see another difference. The windows on the central floor are taller than those in the house on the left. And the left-hand house has a band of stone running beneath the widows at this level. This suggests that the Victorians made another change – they lowered the sills of their middle windows to make them taller, eliminating the stone band in the process, to give more emphasis to, and bring more light into, the principal rooms on this floor. This would have been a labour-intensive job, but it was quite often done in Bath.

One cold go on, of course. About the preserved shutters in the right-hand house, which are at odds with the opportunistic and unfortunate window blinds. And the window box on the left. And the paint colours: who’s for National Trust green? Or neutral white? Do any experts in historic paint finishes read this blog, and can they tell us what colour they’d prefer?

The houses in Bath, then, well preserved though they are, exhibit lots of changes, many of which are themselves historical indications of how taste has changed. Such changes are interesting in their own right. These are real houses where real people have lived and it’s fascinating to find signs of their presence and traces of their taste.


Anonymous said...

On the mayor's tour of Bath in March, our wonderful guide took us around to the backs of the homes that fronted Queen Square, where the windows showed evidence of revisions through the decades. I suppose Bath's residents are accustomed to voyeurs gawking at their homes from all directions. ddu

bazza said...

As I recall Gay Street leads from the pedestrianised centre towards The Circus and Royal Crescent.
There can't be a more perfect Georgian city in Europe with some of the most sublime architecture.
Thanks for the intesting detail in this post.
One thing (among many) that I liked about Bath was the way the central shops had to comply with planning regulations and all had to be faced in Bath stone, even McDonalds. I hope nothing has changed!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks for your comments. Bath is still looking beautiful, and is still a magnet for architectural voyeurs, including me.

The Vintage Knitter said...

I have to thank my parents for my love of Bath; they often took me there when I was growing up to trawl around the antique shops and later in my teens, I would go off by myself exploring. I remember that in the 1980s, Bath used to have lots of curious shops hidden away in its backstreets.

Thinking about it, Bath was lucky that it escaped any major damage during the WWII Baedeker raids.

Eddie 2-Sox said...

Hmmmm. I've found my way, the way you do, via other blogs to here. And some other, equally fascinating blogs. Very clever, great photos, you rotten swines!

I've bookmarked you, if that's OK with you?

columnist said...

Yes, Bath is indeed a delight, and I am grateful to you for pointing out the details of these two houses, and more importantly why they differ.

We used to live in Edinburgh, in what is termed the "late" New Town - the Victorian bit in the West End. I gloried in the architecture every day, and I have just recently revisited. Sadly the litter problem that I found so iksome then still persists. Bath's beauty is the wonderful honey-coloured stone over Edinburgh's rather dirtied greyer version, which makes it a bit drab. But you forgo one pleasure for others - there are so many more people in Bath, and a few modern architectural horrors too, sadly.