The Circus, Bath
Architect: John Wood the Elder (1754)
Photograph: Bernard Cox (1974)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection
John Wood the Elder (1704-54) set the standard for Bath’s building. He insisted on the use of good quality material on street frontages, set a scale for the city, and established the Palladian style here. Consequently, Bath possesses a feeling of architectural conformity, unique in Britain.
Surprisingly, however, this rational town planning was based on historical fantasy. Wood identified pre-Roman Bath as the seat of Apollo; he also thought nearby Stanton Drew had been a university for druids. These imaginative leaps were probably the basis for his finest work, the Circus, begun in 1754. Made up of three circular terraces of houses, the writer Smollett described this as a toy Colosseum “turned outside in.” However, the Colosseum is oval, this is round. Instead, some have suggested that the Circus is actually a reconstruction of Stonehenge, their dimensions being close.
This photograph reveals the Circus’ rich decorative scheme. The three main storeys, set with coupled columns, rise from Doric, to Ionic, to Corinthian. Their heavy cornices are superbly carved: the lowest has some 525 carved emblems! How much of the sculpted decoration, such as the acorns on the parapets, refers to Wood’s druid obsession is difficult to say. Nevertheless, the monumental Circus cannot but impress.