As soon as divine service was over, the Thorpes and Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the pump–room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent, to breathe the fresh air of better company. Here Catherine and Isabella, arm in arm, again tasted the sweets of friendship in an unreserved conversation; they talked much, and with much enjoyment; but again was Catherine disappointed in her hope of reseeing her partner..
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 9
The Royal Crescent in Bath- which Jane Austen referred to only as The Crescent– was, and still is, a pleasant place to promenade. It has wonderful views across the city, being part of the upper town, due to the open prospect it commands. The lack of building immediately before it was due to the building restrictions imposed in the orignal leases for the site. Here is the map of Bath which appears in my copy of The Guide to All the Watering and Sea Bathing Places etc (1803) by John Feltham
And here is a section from that map which shows you exactly the position of The Crescent
The site was acquired as building land on December 20th 1766 by John Wood the Younger from Sir Benet Garrard. The lease contained a clause which would safeguard the amenities of the Crescent by the existence of a covenant which precluded any house being built on the ground immediately before the Crescent (then known as the Kingsmead Furlong, but eventually known as the Barton Fields ), nor did it allow any plant to grow on that land if it exceeded the height of 8 feet, thus preserving the view from the Crescent down to the river Avon.
The terrain is very steep in this part of the city, something which caused some initial problems with the foundations of the buildings – and these vertiginous slopes were a feature that Thomas Rowlandson couldn’t resist making fun of in this chariacture from his series of prints, The Comforts of Bath:
Here he shows the invalids, drawn to Bath to take the waters to effect a cure, in their Bath chairs etc.,staging their own version of The Bath Races. Wicked man.
Back to the Crescent……The Bath Chronicle dated 21st May 1767 noted that
on Tuesday last the foundation stone was laid of the first house of the intended new building above the Circus called the Royal Crescent
The Crescent was made up of 30 houses: though each house had a basement,three stories and roof garrets, each house differed in size, and internally the plans of each were different,as can be noted from the differences in the rear of the buildings from this modern areal photograph. Seven independent firms of building contractors worked on the house. Each house was finished to different degrees of sumptuousness. Some were magnificently decorated with elaborate plasterwork etc. Some, intended to be let permanently to visitors to Bath for the season, were plain.
But the façade facing the city was uniform, and no alterations were allowed from Wood the Younger’s master plan. Each house had a plain ground story face: the windows and doorways are spaced at equal intervals set in plain square headed openings. Above this ground level, for the height of two stories, rises 114 Ionic order columns, each just over 20 feet tall.
The houses were separated from the lawn in front by a wide pavement-as you can see here in this print by Nattes,above. Perfect for that Sunday Promenade by people of fashion as Jane Austen describes it in Northanger Abbey- and a road which was cobbled.That road is now blocked to traffic and so if you visit the Crescent these days you can get some idea of the atmosphere as it was when Jane Austen’s characters walked around it.
Such a beautiful and prominent set of buildings, in the most fashionable area of Bath attracted many famous residents. Let’s look at some of them…Christopher Anstey the poet and author of The New Bath Guide-a poem satirising the visitors to Bath-lived there for 22 years
and the famous Linley family lived at number 11.
The Linleys were a very talented musical famly. Here is Thomas Linley Senior- portrayed by Gainsborough who was a family friend, and who also had a famous studio in Bath in the nearby Circus, where he “pickpotted the rich” by painting their portraits.
His composer son Thomas Linley junior, The English Mozart– again by Gainsborough, lived at the Crescent
but died prematurely while visiting the Duke of Ancaster ‘s Lincolnshire estate. While on on the lake at Grimsthorpe Castle a sudden violent storm below up,causing his boat to capsize. Here is Gainsborough’s wistfully beautiful portrait of his sister Elizabeth Linley, the singer:
She famously eloped from the Crescent with the playwright Richard Sheridan and eventually married him in quite scandalous circumstances, which he subsequently immortalised in his wildly successful play, The Rivals (which play of course was one of the plays performed at the barn at Steventon by the Austen family when they were infected with the itch for acting)
Frederick ,Duke of York lived at Number 1,The Crescent:
This is now a wonderful museum, owned by the Bath Preservation Trust, where many rooms are decorated as they would have been in the 18th century including the kitchen, which has (shade of our other posts this week) a model turnspit dog in his wall mounted cage (which you can clearly see by clicking on the link here) And of course, number 16, the central house in the Crescent is now a rather sumptuous and famous hotel. I’ve not stayed there but I have taken tea there and I can highly reccommend it ;-)
Jane Austen, a frequent visitor to Bath before she lived there from 1801-1806, knew the Crescent well, as is evidenced from her letters:
In the morning Lady Willoughby is to present the Colours to some Corps of Yeomanry or other in the Crescent
(Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 2nd June 1799)
And obviously walked there on Sundays after church like her characters in Northanger Abbey:
On Sunday we walked a little in the Crescent Fields but found it too cold to stay long.
(Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 13th May 1801)
and it was a popular thing to do, though sometimes the crowds were sparse:
We did not walk long in the Crescent yesterday, it was hot and not crouded enough: so we went into the field…
(Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 11th April 1805)
So there you are, a virtual stroll around the Crescent on this wintery Sunday . I hope you enjoy it.