Monday, June 17, 2024

Bath, Somerset

Water is best

I go to Bath quite often and almost always, when I’m there, I admire the Georgian architecture that has made the place famous, but also look out for buildings and details that are either not Georgian or otherwise not typical of the city. Recently, walking along Walcot Street, the Resident Wise Woman and I spotted this small marvel. It’s a drinking fountain that once supplied water for humans and, via the trough to the right, for animals too, appropriately enough since it once served the city’s cattle market. Water, of course, was the thing that made Bath famous before the Georgian period, when the healing spa brought the Romans here. “Water is best” as it says on the walls of the Pump Room,* extolling the life-giving liquid.

Water once came to Walcot Street not in a classical pump room or a Roman bath, but via this Victorian fountain. It’s a Victorian creation, erected in 1860 by one Major Charles Davis, who was appointed city architect and surveyor a couple of years later.† By the look of it he’d been studying the work of John Ruskin, whose books, especially The Stones of Venice, are illustrated with the author’s beautiful drawings showing just this kind of architectural detail. What Ruskin admired in the architecture of Venice (especially its Gothic architecture) was the combination of craftsmanship and visual beauty. He drew arches sometimes with patterns carved into the surface of the stone, as in the outer arch here; sometimes with a zigzag pattern in two colours, as in the drinking fountain’s lower arch; often with shafts (miniature columns) in different materials, also as here. In 1860, bright, shining, and new, the arch would have gleamed, catching the eye with this combination of varied geology and delicate carving. The sound of running water would have added to the appeal.

It’s a shame that the fountain has seen better days – the weeds in the trough seem well established (was it once used as a planter?) and, because the structure is on the side of the road where there are no shops, few people walk along this bit of pavement to notice. Looking it up online, I found an article about restoring the fountain, but I’m not sure the date of this. I hope some cleaning and conservation work is possible, even if the fountain can no longer be connected to a water supply. Though the trickle of water would be an added attraction too.

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* This motto is actually in ancient Greek, as it’s a quotation from the poet Pindar, put there, I believe, by temperance campaigners to encourage people to choose water over intoxicating liquors.

† Davis did a lot of work in the city, from the redevelopment of the Roman Baths to the building of the Empire Hotel. He would have needed to cultivate versatility to produce these diverse works, and the tiny project of designing the drinking fountain shows another string to his bow – Ruskinian Venetian design to add to his classical works in the Baths and the more generic Gothic and Norman that he needed for his church restorations.

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