With the arrival of Beau Nash at Bath in 1702, the city would change into the city it became. It was during his time and with his encouragement that Bath began to take on an entirely different aspect. The one that it still has today. Two men were largely responsible for this change. The civic minded Ralph Allen who developed the local quarries of soft, honey colored gold stone used for the buildings , and John Wood, an architect from Yorkshire, who, imbued with a passion for classical architecture, planned a city beside he Avon with buildings as harmonious as those with which Palladio had adorned the banks of the Brenta and the Po.
It is to Wood that we owe, in addition to the Royal Mineral Water Hospital and the North and South Parades, the dignity and grace of Queen Square and Gay street and the fantastic virtuosity of the Circus, and it was his son, the younger Wood, who designed and built the Upper Assembly Rooms and the magnificent thousand foot sweep of the Royal Crescent, one of the most completely satisfying architectural creations in England.
By the second half of the century Bath had become one of the most beautiful towns in Europe, and the fashionable society of London flocked there, no longer only to drink the waters, but to enjoy themselves. ”They went there well,” said Horace Walpole, ”and came away cured”.
It is largely owing to the literary guests at Prior Park, such as Walople, Alexander Pope and Thomas Fielding, that we have so vivid a picture of eighteenth century Bath and are able to share the daily life of its visitors, hour by hour. After three days on the road, guests of London were welcomed by a peal of bells from the Abbey, which informed the whole town of their arrival, and from that moment they never needed to pass a single hour idle or alone.
First, before breakfast they could spend the early morning drinking the waters or bathing in the Cross bath or the King’s Bath, the men dressed in linen drawers and jackets, the ladies in palm leaf hats and a brown linen costume that billowed out and concealed the figure, and moving, according to Pope, with a motion ”something betwixt swimming and walking”. Each lady had a little floating bowl beside her, to hold her hankerchief and scented nosegay and beauty patches, and perhaps also some snuff.
The shorter women were advised to leave the bath when any very tall companion entered it, such as the gaunt Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, who ordered more water to flow until it reached her chin, causing ladies of lesser stature and rank to fly shrieking to dry land. After the bath, the visitors were carried in sedan chairs to their lodgings and wrapped in warm blankets for a thorough sweat. They would come out again an hour or two later to be ferried across the Av
or a breakfast party in the Spring Garden.
It was very damp in this ”sweet retreat” , and the richness of the sweet buttered rolls counteracted some of the benefits of the cure, although it was believed that to dance there was good for rheumatism. After this, the ladies could show off their elegant gowns while walking up and down the Parade, or reading and gossiping in the bookshops. The afternoon could be spent in visits, and the evening either at the Orchard Street Theatre , at a concert or a dance in the Assembly Rooms, or at a private party.
In 1798, the famous caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson drew ”The Comforts of Bath”, a series of satiric drawings. The cartoons were used to illustrate the 1858 edition of the New Bath Guide, written by Christopher Anstey and first published in 1766. Rowlandson depicted both the social and medical scene in Bath just before the period described by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion , and by Georgette Heyer in her Regency romances.. The scenes depict the use of mineral water therapy for the invalids who flocked to Bath, a city whose fashionable post-Nash reputation was already well past its prime and whose medical men were generally regarded as quacks or, worse, “potential murderers”.
The rotund gentleman in front and center of all these scenes,who undoubtedly suffered from gout, a painful rich man’s disease, was conjectured to be based after Tobias Smollet’s Mr. Bramble. In the pictorial’s subtext, notice how “Mr. Bramble’s” young wife (companion or daughter) flirts with the young officer who boldly woos her (Image above). Even while satirizing them, Rowlandson gets the social details just right.