23 February 2017
ACE Tour Director Roger White introduces his architectural tour of Georgian Bristol.
Everyone knows about Georgian Bath – as you realise on an average summer day, when they all seem to be there simultaneously – but what about Georgian Bristol? The relationship between the two cities is rather like Glasgow and Edinburgh, in the sense that in the 18th century the money was made in one and spent in the other. Bath was the supremely elegant spa town, with the finest accumulation of classical frontages in the country. Interestingly, though, because it was largely a city of transient visitors, most of the money went on those facades, with the interiors being relatively simply fitted up; it is not on the whole a city of fine domestic interiors. Bristol, by contrast, was overwhelmingly a city of muck and brass (Horace Walpole called it a ‘dirty great shop’), not just because it was a great trading port but because there was also a lot of very inelegant and smelly industry. Those who made the money lived year-round in the city, which meant that while they were by no means as culturally or socially sophisticated as the denizens of Bath, they liked to show that they had Money. So the Georgian houses they built had facades of varying degrees of tastefulness but in addition there were interiors boasting superb and showy craftsmanship in plaster and wood-carving.
Of course, people whose lives are devoted primarily to making money tend to be unsentimental about pulling down old buildings when it suits them, so whereas Bath remained wonderfully intact until the second world war, a good deal of Georgian Bristol had already gone when the Luftwaffe arrived to bomb the docks. The wartime devastation, along with the knowledge that Bristol is essentially a busy commercial and regional centre, probably colours the outsider’s impression of the place and keeps the cultural visitors away. If you know where to look, however, more than enough remains to fill a visit of several days. There are the Georgian churches, public buildings and squares that still survive in the old centre – and how many people know that Hogarth’s spectacular altar tryptych, his largest work, still remains in one of those churches?
By the mid 18th century rich merchants were choosing to live beyond the toxic dirt and smoke of the centre, for instance in villas up on the slopes of Clifton where the air was cleaner, there was space for gardens, and they might have a view of their ships coming and going on the Avon. It is really remarkable, all things considered, that a number of these villas survive, often nowadays taken over and cherished by Bristol University. Goldney House, one such, has one of the best medium-size Georgian gardens in the country, with a fabulous grotto that is worth coming many miles to see; and the Royal Fort has better Rococo plasterwork than anything surviving in Bath. Redland Chapel, embedded in another suburb of Georgian origin, is an exquisite jewel box of craftsmanship, virtually unknown outside the city.
Those who could afford it, and who perhaps saw themselves more as gentry than merchants, tended to live further out again, and here too we find some pretty remarkable survivals. Kings Weston House is a rare work by that wild Baroque genius Sir John Vanbrugh, recently the subject of some heart-warming restoration by a new private owner. Blaise Hamlet not far away on the western fringes is the locus classicus of the cottage orné (subject of my forthcoming book, which I hope all ACE clients will buy), designed in the Regency period and an instant tourist attraction. Perhaps most unexpected and jaw-dropping is Leigh Court, one of the most imposing Greek Revival mansions in England.
So yes, when you start totting it all up, you could begin to argue that a few days spent tracking all this down in Bristol makes for just as fascinating – and perhaps even more intriguing – an experience than joining the summer crowds in Bath.
To learn more about this tour please click on the link below:
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