Since Roman times, Bath’s hot mineral springs have pumped a quarter of a million gallons of spring water a day at a steady temperature of 49°c. In 1708, Thomas Harrison built the Bath Assembly House, for which the public paid fees to dance and gamble. During mid-18th to early 19th century, Bath’s population exploded from 2,000 to 38,000, becoming the eighth largest city in England by 1801.
Visitors promenaded up and down the great room, and drank the waters from eight or nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. The main spring that feeds the fountain Three men – Ralph Allen, post master; John Wood, architect; and Beau Nash, fashion and social arbiter – contributed to this up and coming city’s popularity with the leisure classes. Developer John Wood followed the Palladian concept of the architectural ideal, constructing magnificent squares, parades, and buildings out of softly-hued, beautiful honey-coloured Bath stone. Ralph Allen contributed much of his personal fortune to Bath’s rebuilding, and Beau Nash organized Bath’s social life and balls, bringing in musicians from London, exerting his influence as a dandy, and becoming a leader of fashion.
”With more than usual eagerness did Catherine hasten to the Pump-room the next day, secure within herself of seeing Mr. Tilney there before the morning were over, and ready to meet him with a smile; – but no smile was demanded – Mr. Tilney did not appear. Every creature in Bath, except himself, was to be seen in the room at different periods of the fashionable hours; crowds of people were every moment passing in and out, up the steps and down; people whom nobody cared about, and nobody wanted to see; and he only was absent. “What a delightful place Bath is,” said Mrs. Allen as they sat down near the great clock, after parading the room till they were tired; “and how pleasant it would be if we had any acquaintance here.” Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey Chapter IV
The gay, artificial, scandalous, busy comedy of life in Bath needed no falsification and little alteration to become a comedy of manners; the candles of the assembly rooms turned into the footlights of London. For Richard Sheridan, and for Gainsborough and Thomas Lawrence and Mrs. Siddens, Bath had been the forcing house of their young talents from which they went on to gather their laurels elsewhere.
Gainsborough lived in Bath for sixteen years, from 1759 to 1775, and during that time he painted some of his loveliest landscapes. Inparticular, neat Hampstion Rocks and beside a great elm tree which has since been called Gainsborough’s Elm. But mainly he painted portraits; his subject including all the most fashionable visitors from London, the great actors of the day, the painters and musicians and demimondaines, and even some of the literary men, though they were, according to Jackson, ”his aversion”. But undoubtedly the subjects Gainsborough best liked to paint were the great actors and musicians.
If painting was Gainsborough’s profession, music may be said to have been his passion. One one occasion he was so enchanted by the violin solo of one of his friends, a Colonel Hamilton, that he promised to give him one of his pictures, ”The Boy and the Stile”, if only he would go on playing, and this the guest did, departing an hour later in a hackney coach with the picture under his arm. Gainsborough also exchanged tow of his own landscapes for a viola belongint ot the German violinist Abel, and when the violininst Giardini was playing in Bath, he ”was frantic until he possessed the very instrument which had given himuch pleasure, but seemed surprised that the music of it remained with Giardini”.
“In the Pump Room itself, an orchestra played while visitors drank the obligatory quantity of the water. Lydia, in Smollett’s novel Humphrey Clinker, describes the experience: “The noise of the music playing in the gallery, the heat and flavour of such a crowd, and the hum and buzz of their conversation, gave one the headache and vertigo&.”…The gentlemen dressed in breeches stockings and cocked hats; the ladies in the most superb manner – pelisses laced with gold cords and Hussars’ hats, having three circles of gold cord round them with two great tassels of gold upon the left side. What is called a reticule, which contains their pocket-handkerchief and work, is hanging by a gold chain to the arm, and is fringed with gold. I went to the Pump Room, which is very large and grand. On one side is the pump, where a woman stands and distributes old King Bladud’s waters to old and young, sick and ill. An old duchess of eighty and a child of four were both drinking the waters while I was there.
In all the immortalizing and plays, tragi-comedies and romances which their lives engendered; the real protagonist in all these real-life and later fictionalized accounts is the city of Bath itself. The Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms, the circulating library and the parades; it was here that, day after day, young Sheridan had become acquainted with Lydia Languish and Mrs. Malaprop, with Bob Acres and Captain Absolute.
The two greatest actors of the day, Garrick and Quin, were also among Gainsborough’s subjects. When, for the Shakespearean festival at Stratford-On-Avon in 1767, the corporation of bath asked him to paint Garrick’s portrait, he gladly accepted, deciding to show the actor with his arm around a bust of Shakespeare, but to portray Shakespeare’s expression as he himself had imagined it. ”Damm the original pictures of him,” he wrote, ” for I think a stupider face I never beheld… I intend to take the form from his picture and statues, just enough to preserve his likeness past the doubt of all blockheads, and supply a Soul from his Works”.
The love affair between Sheridan and Elizabeth Linley resulted in an elopement to France and a duel with Captain Matthews, in which Sheridan was seriously wounded. The bond between Thomas Lawrence and Mrs. Siddons lasted nearly a lifetime, since the painter, later on in London, had an unhappy, three cornered love affair with Mrs. Siddons’s two daughters.
With their departure, and as the turn of the century approached, Bath began to follow the fate of all watering places; it became less fashionable, less crowded and also less expensive. A reflection of this change , too, may be found in the difference of atmosphere between the bath of Jane Austen’s ”Northanger Abbey” and that of ”Persuasion” written thirteen years later. In Northanger the great events of the day for Catherine Morland were still her visits to the Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms, where the crowd was so great that Catherine, ” linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly,” and, since ”there was not a genteel face to be seen,” ladies ”hastened away to the Crescent, to breathe fresh air of better company.”
But in Persuasion, Bath is no longer described as either gay or crowded. Bath is now chiefly the residence of elderly invalids, retired officers from the Napoleonic wars, and impoverished landowners like Sir Walter Eliot, who found that ”he might be important at comparatively little expense”.
And when, 1n 1837, Dickens sent Mr. Pickwick there, the scene that he described in the Pump Room was as much a parody of its former elegance as Angelo Cyrus Bantam, Esq., M.C. was a caricature of Beau Nash. bath, in short, had become what Quin had called it many years before; ” The Cradle of Age, and a Fine Slope to the Grave”. One last belated figure of the eighteenth century arrive upon the scene in 1822, like one of the sputtering rockets that suddenly light up the sky when the blaze of fireworks has faded away. The eccentric and mysterious William Beckford.
Beckford built a tower built a tower of 130 feet high, crowned with a cast iron model of the temple of Lysicrates which contained pictures by Perugino, Raphael, and Bellini. Here, the author of ”Vathek” spent the last years of his life. In Bath itself , he found nothing to please him but the Abbey, and he described the city as ” incredibly dingy and wretched, … a paradise of idlers and corpses.” He claimed to have received, at the age of six, lessons in composition from Mozart and at nine, had inspired Mozart to write a passage from ”Figaro” He said, ”music destroys me, and what is worse, I love being destroyed.” Thus the man who had maintained that he was only happy ” in the air of illusion”, had himself become a figure in his own dream. With his death, we must say farewell to the Bath of the eighteenth century.
”The English must have been the only people in the world for whom a typical response to someone who accidentally stepped on one’s toes was to apologize oneself. British behavior when ill or injured was stoic. Aurelle recounts in Les silences du Colonel Bramble seeing an officer he knew on a stretcher, obviously near death from a terrible abdominal injury. The officer says to him: “Please say good-bye to the colonel for me and ask him to write home that I didn’t suffer too much. I hope this is not too much trouble for you. Thanks very much indeed.” Tony Mayer, too, says of the English that when they were ill they usually apologized: “I’m sorry to bother you, Doctor.”
No culture changes suddenly, and the elderly often retained the attitudes of their youth. I remember working for a short time in a general practice in a small country town where an old man called me to his house. I found him very weak from chronic blood loss, unable to rise from his bed, and asked him why he had not called me earlier. “I didn’t like to disturb you, Doctor,” he said. “I know you are a very busy man.”
From a rational point of view, this was absurd. What could I possibly need to do that was more important than attending to such an ill man? But I found his self-effacement deeply moving. It was not the product of a lack of self-esteem, that psychological notion used to justify rampant egotism; nor was it the result of having been downtrodden by a tyrannical government that accorded no worth to its citizens. It was instead an existential, almost religious, modesty, an awareness that he was far from being all-important.”