Georgian Celebrity: John Wood, the Elder ~ Architect of Bath

John Wood the Elder

John Wood the Elder

John Wood, the Elder, (1704 – 23 May 1754, Bath), was an English architect, working mainly in Bath.

In 1740 he surveyed Stonehenge and the Stanton Drew stone circles. He later wrote extensively about Bladud and Neo-Druidism. Because of some of his designs he is also thought to have been involved in the early years of Freemasonry.

His notable work in Bath included: St John’s Hospital, Queen Square, and Prior Park. Wood also designed important buildings outside Bath, including the reconstruction of Llandaff Cathedral, Buckland House, The Exchange, Bristol, and Liverpool Town Hall. He has been described by Nikolaus Pevsner as “one of the outstanding architects of the day.”

Early Life
Wood was born in Twiverton, a village near Bath, which later became a city suburb. His father George Wood was a local builder. Baptised in St. James’s Church (now demolished), he received a good but basic education at King Edward’s School; however, the school records of that period no longer survive.

During his teenage years and early twenties, Wood worked for Robert Benson, the first Baron Bingley at his estate, Bramham Park, Yorkshire. He then became involved in speculative builds on the Cavendish estate in London.

Style and Vision
Through reading, site visits and practical experience Wood developed his unique ideas in order to create a master plan for his home town of such ambition it is almost overwhelming. Through his continual self-education, Wood refined his architectural beliefs and by his mid-twenties had combined his passion for Palladianism (a type of classical architecture) with his obsession with Ancient British history, and almost certainly Freemasonry.

Wood set out to restore Bath to what he believed was its former ancient glory as one of the most important and significant cities in England. In 1725, he developed an ambitious plan for his home town, which due to opposition, he developed outside the existing city walls. Wood created a distinctive image for the city, one that has greatly contributed to Bath’s continuing popularity.

Wood’s grand plans for Bath were consistently hampered by the Corporation (council), churchmen, landowners and moneymen. Instead he approached Robert Gay, a barber surgeon from London, and the owner of the Barton Farm estate in the Manor of Walcot, outside the city walls. On these fields Wood established Bath’s architectural style, the basic principals of which were copied by all those architects who came after him. Wood created one of the greatest attractions in the world, recognised by UNESCO for embodying a number of outstanding universal values, including the deliberate creation of a beautiful and unified city.

Speculative Building

In the heart of Bath is Queen Square–a square of Georgian houses designed by John Wood, the elder in the early 18th century and paid for by Beau Nash. The square was designed to join the houses in unison and give the impression that together they formed one large mansion when viewed from the south facing side. The focal point of Queen Square is the obelisk at the centre, which commemorates the visit of Frederick, Prince of Wales.

In the heart of Bath is Queen Square–a square of Georgian houses designed by John Wood, the elder in the early 18th century and paid for by Beau Nash. The square was designed to join the houses in unison and give the impression that together they formed one large mansion when viewed from the south facing side.
The focal point of Queen Square is the obelisk at the centre, which commemorates the visit of Frederick, Prince of Wales.

At Queen Square, Wood introduced speculative building to Bath. This meant that whilst Wood leased the land from Robert Gay for £137 per annum, designed the frontages, and divided the ground into the individual building plots, he sub-let to other individual builders or masons. They had two years grace in which to get the walls up and the roof on, after which they had to pay a more substantial rent.

As Bath was booming, most plots were reserved before the two years were up, providing the builder with the necessary income to complete the house. Ultimately this meant less work and risk for Wood; in addition he received £305 per annum in rents, leaving him a healthy profit of £168 – the equivalent today (in terms of average earnings) of £306,000.

Bath Architecture
Along with his son, John Wood, the Younger, Wood is known for designing many of the streets and buildings of Bath, such as St John’s Hospital, (1727–28), Queen Square (1728–36), Prior Park (1734–41), The Royal Mineral Water Hospital (1738–42) the North (1740) and South Parades (1743–48), The Circus (1754–68), and other notable houses, many of which are Grade I listed buildings.

In 1716 the architect William Killigrew was commissioned to rebuild the St John’s Hospital, which had been founded around 1180, by Bishop Reginald Fitz Jocelin making it among the oldest almshouses in England. Construction continued after 1727 with John Wood, the Elder undertaking the building, as his first work in Bath, when he was age 23.

Ralph Allen’s Town House was commissioned by Ralph Allen who commenced building it in or shortly afer 1727. Opinion is divided as to whether John Wood the Elder designed the “Town House,” however, the ostentatious decoration is not a style he uses elsewhere in Bath. Wood, in his “Essay towards the future of Bath,” says — while Mr Allen was making the Addition to the North Part of his House in Lilliput Alley, he new fronted and raised the old Building a full Storey higher; it consists of a Basement Storey sustaining a double Storey under the Crowning; and this is surmounted by an Attick, which created a sixth Rate House, and a Sample for the greatest Magnificence that was ever proposed by me for our City Houses.

North Side Queen Square

North Side Queen Square

Queen Square was Wood’s first speculative development. Wood lived in a house on the square. Numbers 21–27 make up the north side, which has been described by Nikolaus Pevsner as “one of the finest Palladian compositions in England before 1730.” The west side (numbers 14 – 18 and 18A, 19 & 20) was designed by John Pinch in 1830 and differs from Wood’s original design as the central block is in Neo-Grecian style. 16-18 is now occupied by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. The south side (numbers 5-13), which was originally left open, is now occupied by a hotel.

In 1742, Wood was commissioned to build a home for the mayor of Bath Ralph Allen, on a hill overlooking the city of Bath. This building is Grade 1 listed and has housed Prior Park College since 1830.

The building for the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases was designed by Wood and built with Bath Stone donated by Ralph Allen. It was later enlarged, firstly in 1793 by the addition of an attic storey and later in 1860 by a second building erected on the west side of the earlier edifice. It is a Grade II listed building. There is a fine pediment, in Bath stone, on 1860 building depicting the parable of the Good Samaritan.

North Parade was part of a wider scheme to build a Royal Forum, including South Parade, Pierrepont and Duke Streets, similar to Queen Square, which was never completed. Wood designed the facade, of Bath Stone, after which a variety of builders completed the work with different interiors and rear elevations.

Wood Street was built in 1778 an has been designated as a Grade I listed building. The street was designed by John Wood, the Elder and built by Thomas Baldwin in the same style as the adjacent Queen Square.

His final masterpiece was the Circus, built on Barton Fields outside the old city walls of Bath, although he never lived to see his plans put into effect as he died less than three months after the first stone was laid. It was left to his son, John Wood, the Younger to complete the scheme to his father’s design. Wood’s inspiration was the Roman Colosseum, but whereas the Colosseum was designed to be seen from the outside, the Circus faces inwardly. Three classical Orders, (Greek Doric, Roman/Composite and Corinthian) are used, one above the other, in the elegant curved facades. The frieze of the Doric entablature is decorated with alternating triglyphs and 525 pictorial emblems, including serpents, nautical symbols, devices representing the arts and sciences, and masonic symbols. The parapet is adorned with stone acorn finials. He demonstrated how a row of town houses could be dignified, almost palatial. The uses of uniform facades and rhythmic proportions in conjunction with classical principles of unerring symmetry were followed throughout the city.

Death and Legacy
Wood died in Bath and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s church, Swainswick. Many of his building projects were continued by his son John Wood, the Younger including; Royal Crescent, Bath Assembly Rooms and Buckland House.He also finished The Circus.
There is an off-campus dormitory complex belonging to the University of Bath named John Wood Complex, on Avon Street.
Bath is now a World Heritage Site, at least partly as a result of the Wood’s architecture


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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