It might at first appear strange that I am reviewing a book that was first published in 1948, but it has recently been re-printed in facsimile foom by Spire Books Ltd in association with the Bath Preservation Trust (whose property, Number 1 The Royal Crescent, is used to illustrate the cover of this book)
Walter Ison’s book is in fact an established classic and a deserves to be read and enjoyed by anyone who has visited Bath and has fallen under the spell of its Georgian Buildings; or, indeed, by anyone who has never been lucky enough to visit but has likewise fallen under its spell after reading about the city in such books as Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, where the buildings and city of Bath are essential elements of the book, the city being a character in its own right.
The first copy of this book that I owned was the edition that was revised and published in 1980 (see below) where the photographs were embedded in the text. The new edition is much more clearly set out, as was the original 1948 edition, with two distinct sections -text and line drawings in part one, then photographs and reproductions of contemporary engravings in part two: I much prefer it.
The new edition has an informative foreword by Michael Forsyth who is the Director of Studies in theConservation of Historic Buildings at the University of Bath and is also the author of another book on the architecture of Bath, the Yale Pevsner Guide to Baht, an excellent work, which was first published in 2003.
Walter Ison was born in another spa town, Leamington Spa in Warwickshire in 1908.He became a draftsman in an architectural practice in London where he first read Mowbray Green’s study of Georgian Bath, “Eighteenth Century Architecture of Bath“,which fired his imagination. It is no lie to say that he became obsessed with the city and the history of its development and its buildings. Bath degenerated as a spa town from the mid to late 19th century. It was not until the 1930s that it was realised that something had to be done to stop the city decaying completely and such treasures as the Assembly Rooms were at last recognised as being buildings of merit and, as such, were deserving of restoration and protection. In 1934 the Bath Preservation Trust was established and in 1936-8 the Assembly Rooms were restored. The Second World War then intervened and Bath was badly damaged by the so-called Baedeker offensive of 1942: 400 lives were lost and 329 buildings were destroyed in those air-raids, including the newly restored Assembly Rooms. A further 732 buildings were demolished as a result of damage in later air raids,and another 20,000 buildings were recorded by the City Engineer as having been damaged in some way as a result of the attacks.
Ison moved to Bath after his war time service with the air force ended, on the encouragement of his wife, Leonora. She also donated an important personal legacy to him, so that he had the funds with which to be able to research,write and finish his proposed book. Taking his inspiration from earlier histories of the buildings of Bath, including John Wood the Elder’s own version(see above) his resulting book is a comprehensive history of the building of the city and all its major buildings, and the architects responsible. The book was rather touchingly and appropriately dedicated to his wife.
The book is divided into chapters which deal with the development of the city, the pubic buildings,domestic buildings and representative buildings of the period 1700-1725, 1726-1750, 1750-1775, 1775-1800 and finally 1800-1830. The text of the book is also studded with magnificent plans and line drawings of the important buildings. Above is his ground plan, section and elevation of the Hot Bath where Mrs Smith in Persuasion went to receive her treatment, living close by in the lowly Westgate Buildings.
The second part of the book is filled with contemporary engravings -such as this, above of the Pump Room and the new private baths from Stall Street and photographs( all in black and white) taken mostly in the late 1940s
Now, it has to be remembered that when Jane Austen knew Bath the buildings were not yet blackened with industrial grime. This photograph of Great Pultney Street from Ison’s book shows the buildings as I first remember them from my first visit to the city aged 5 in the early 1960s. The soot and grime of the Victorian era -coal fires and grime from the nearby industrial town of Bristol- had turned most of the buildings black, and it was only from the mid 195os that a programme of cleaning and the effects of the Clean Air Acts enabled them to be returned almost to the white glare of the newly recreated limestone buildings that so distressed Anne Elliot in Persuasion. But the photographs now have a period charm of their own-the cars and sometimes the 1940s fashions of the people shown in them are now as fascinating to me as the sedan chair and muslins of the inhabitants of the 18th century prints and engravings
(My photograph of Pulteney Street taken this summer)
Interior views are also inlcuded: not only of the great public buildings like the Guildhall, but of more domestic settings as such as this first floor drawing room of number 41 Gay Street: Jane Austen, remember, lived briefly at number 25 Gay Street after the death of her father, and in Persuasion it was the home of The Crofts.
The book is easy to read and comprehensively covers every aspect of the creation of the famed Georgian buildings in the city. Walter Ison died in 1997, and this new edition ensures that his book will live on as a classic, in his memory. I can highly recommend this magnificent book, and do hope that some of you are tempted by this review to rush out and buy it.