Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Definitely not Coronation Street

Victoria Park adjoins Bath's Royal Crescent's private lawn
I'm browsing a book on town house architecture, the eponymous Town House Architecture by David Eveleigh, which I picked up in Bath. At Royal Crescent, actually. It's a fascinating history of the growth of urban architecture. The writer travels through architectural periods from Georgian to WWII, exploring the changes in taste and design, for both detached and terrace housing.

My special interest is in the terrace or 'townhouse' form characterized by rows, squares, crescents and circles of conjoined residences. Cities like London, Bristol and Bath still have them, in magnificent numbers.

23 Ewart Street
These 'townhouses', as we call them in most of the world (not UK) remind us of the common roots shared by posh addresses like Bath's Royal Crescent and working class terraces (row houses) like Ewart Street, Lincoln, where Den grew up.

view from the gravel walk, the short cut to the Baths
 I'm not going to impart too much town house lore at the moment (particularly as I haven't yet read the book.) Suffice to say that Eveleigh places the beginnings of this urban residential concept at the 1630s in England, with a Covent Garden square designed by Inigo Jones, Surveyor General to the King, no less. Bound to take off. Real estate developers and speculators loved them. People of fashion gravitated to these new "socially exclusive suburbs." (The hoi-polloi were relegated to their own residential developments, cheek by jowl with their tanneries, shops and mines. Here's a photo gallery. Feast your eyes and get indigestion. Shades of  Frank McCourt's Limerick. )

The third reason for the significance of the 'townhouse' (and to me, most intriguing) was the architecture.

Inigo Jones, as you might know if you've been paying attention to my meagre UK offerings (Jones designed the Queen's House at Greenwich), overturned old style timber frame building (eg. at left) with a bright new "style derived from Renaissance reinterpretation of the ancient architecture of Greece and Rome." (Eveleigh, p.6) Typically called 'Classical' or 'Palladian' (I've certainly gone on about that in past posts, try out the AR Search function if you're at all curious), this architecture spoke "with an Italian accent." (Eveleigh again, sigh.)

Georgian Palladian features - gigantic pilasters with Ionic capitals, the harmony of proportions, strict formulas for the placement and size of windows (note the shorter windows of the 'lesser' top level),  rusticated first (below ground) level, a balustrade concealing roof elements, pediments, regularity and symmetry.

the stately rhythm of 114 giant (47') Ionic columns
This is the Royal Crescent at Bath, a Georgian crescent of thirty terraced houses in the majestic Palladian style, designed by John Wood, the Younger and built 1767-74. I've visited once before, but this time, got to spend several days in its regal presence. The visit was made splendid by the travels of a generous sun  lighting the Bath stone, by several enjoyable hours in Royal Victoria Park in front of the Crescent, yet separated from the masses by a ha-ha (bet you'll look that up. Here's a source.) Royal Victoria Park was opened by Princess Victoria when she was 11, and is the first to  have her name. Then there was the Bath Preservation Trust museum house at No. 1 Royal Crescent, when  I wandered mute with wonder, through the rooms. See my previous post - and the most welcome visitor in the comments.

The crescents and circuses of Bath and other fashionable Georgian towns were built by developers and speculators to attract the nation's upcoming upper middle class, who wanted some of the airs of the country houses of the wealthy and titled, without the bills.

pedimented entrance to left pavilion
 The terraces were often rented for 'the season', or taking the waters (Bath, of course, was all about the Roman baths and the water's healing powers, and the attendant cultural and social events.)
a tricky property to capture in its entirety - stand back, way back
Here's more history, if you're so inclined. I love this writer's comment about 'vestigial Blenheim.' Although the minor gentry to whom Woods was catering did not inherit vast country estates like the Churchills  they still aspired to some of the style. Large town-houses would have to do - the presence of the larger end 'units' or pavilions of bright Bath stone contributed the cachet of a Blenheim.
The Ha-ha, taken from the gentleman's bedroom window
I've enjoyed plowing through a number of Royal Crescent history sites. One of the most surprising facts, given the august classical regularity of the Palladian fronts, is the back-story of the leases for the units. Buyers were required to maintain the exterior symmetry, but were free to individualize interior layouts, roof treatments, and the more prosaic rear elevations which led to the expression 'Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Ann backs.' . If you trace our steps up Marlborough Road, keeping the left pavilion to your right, away from Victoria Park, this Streetview peek at the rear elevations of the gives a sense of the rugged individualism at play.

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