Early view of Bath
Artist: Nicholas Hawksmoor (1683)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library Drawings & Archives Collection
When Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) visited Bath in 1683, the town he drew was still essentially a medieval muddle huddled within its old walls. Long before it had been one of the most important towns in Roman Britain. Built around the hot springs at the centre of a complex of baths, this was a national health resort. But after the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 410 AD, Bath fell into decay.
The town’s economy was revived in the Middle Ages by wool-marketing and cloth-making. It was then that Bath Abbey was built, its Perpendicular architecture now a medieval anomaly in a Georgian setting. In the seventeenth century, the hot springs once more became an attraction and social cachet was conferred by the visits of two Queens, James I’s wife Anne of Denmark (1613) and James II’s wife Mary of Modena (1687). Architecturally, Bath was a mess, something conveyed here: enclosed by walls, the principal buildings are churches, with the Abbey dominating all around. The town’s population was small: this was nothing more than a provincial market town.
However, change came soon and swiftly. Only twenty years after Hawksmoor’s visit, Bath was rapidly evolving into a Spa town. A pump room (1706), assembly rooms (1708) and a ballroom (1720) were all built, while terraces of houses for a growing number of visitors were being laid out. Hawksmoor’s sketch, therefore, offers us a rare glimpse of an unknown Bath, less familiar, perhaps, even than its Roman face.