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Bath’s Royal Crescent celebrates 250th Birthday

The foundation stone for No. 1 Royal Crescent – the first of what would become the glorious Bath stone symmetrical terrace of 30 houses in the city of Bath  – was laid on 19 May 1767. The year 2017 will mark exactly 250 years since this iconic symbol of Georgian architecture –  largely unchanged – was built to the designs of John Wood the Younger between 1767-1774. The Royal Crescent represents a supreme achievement in British uniform Palladian design, the most perfect example of Wood’s architectural vision for the city, surpassing even the sweeping Circus which was begun by his father, John Wood the Elder in 1754 but completed by him in 1768. The Grade 1* listed Royal Crescent was immediately recognised as the most fashionable area in Bath in which to live – No. 1 being known as the ‘best address’ in Bath. It was widely praised for its open situation with its “fresh air of better company” (Northanger Abbey) and the space in front of it – preserved today in part in the form of the Royal Victoria Park and the semi-circular lawn in front, now separated from the lower lawn by a ha-ha and accessible only to Royal Crescent residents. A German princess, Princess Louise of Anhalt-Dessau, visiting Bath incognito in 1775 wrote that the Crescent’s “good situation, free view and fresh air”… made this building “the very best in Bath.”

With its 114 Ionic columns, each one measuring 3o inches in diameter and 47 feet – it is partly because of John Wood the Younger’s Royal Crescent that the city was granted World Heritage status under UNESCO in 1987 – the Crescent is a testament to the imagination and identity of the Georgian age. It stands as one of the finest examples of 18th century architecture in the United Kingdom and to see the golden stone crescent in the light of the setting summer sun, is to appreciate the perfection of Wood’s creation and admire it not only for its beauty but for its huge significance, both in architectural and socio historical terms.

The Royal Crescent has had many notable inhabitants including royalty, over the 250 years that it played host to many events which today have become the stuff of Bath legend – most famously perhaps, was the scandalous escape of Elizabeth Ann Sheridan, nee Linley – sister of Thomas Linley the Younger, composer and prodigious performer, aka “the English Mozart” – from No. 11 Royal Crescent. The event is even commemorated on a plaque outside the address. Elizabeth was a celebrated society beauty and was painted by Gainsborough. Secretly, on 18 March 1772, the celebrated soprano left No. 11 Royal Crescent in a sedan chair, resolving to leave her life in Bath behind for a French convent, escaping with the aid of the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Bound for France, Sheridan confessed his love for her en route and it appears that a first marriage may have taken place between them in France, an official one occurred at least when the couple returned to England – it may however, have been the second re-affirmation of an earlier pledge. King George III’s second son, Frederick Duke of York (1763-1827) stayed at the Royal Crescent, coming to Bath in 1795 to open the Pump Rooms, whereupon he was granted the Freedom of the City. It was in fact, thanks to his visit that the Crescent became the Royal Crescent, receiving its royal name in the Duke’s honour. George III’s consort, Queen Charlotte visited Bath to take a cure in 1817 – exactly 200 years ago – the year before her death. She stayed however, not at the Royal Crescent, but at fashionable Sydney Place, in Bath’s New Town.

No. 1 Royal Crescent was occupied by the wealthy landowner Mr. Henry Sandford between 1777-1796 and following several various uses of the building, including that of a seminary and a lodging-house, the house was separated and acquired with the specific intention of its being restored as a historic house for the Bath Preservation Trust. The Brownsword Charitable Foundation has made parts of the house available on long-term lease including the historic kitchens, which has enabled the house to be visited in its entirety as a museum experience on both levels. Today, the house is presented and decorated as it may have appeared during the period in which Henry Sandford occupied it, so that it literally represents a time capsule for Georgian Bath life, told through the furnishings, objects and rooms that can be visited, including the Lady’s Bedroom, the Gentleman’s Retreat, the Withdrawing Room and the Housekeeper’s Room.

The Royal Crescent’s No. 15-16 are occupied by the five-star luxury spa hotel, The Royal Crescent. No. 2 and No. 7 were severely damaged as a result of the so-called ‘Baedeker Raids’ on Bath in 1942, but have now been fully restored to their former appearance.

The Royal Crescent provided the perfect backdrop for elegant society to see and be seen – No. 1 Royal Crescent’s website states that the Crescent was perhaps “the greatest theatre in Georgian England… a stage set against which the fashionable visitors and residents of the city performed, promenading in their finest clothes…” It is no surprise that this is echoed in the Regency Costumed Charity Promenade, which officially launches the Jane Austen Festival in Bath in September, where this year, the Parade will depart from the lawn in front of the Royal Crescent. It echoes the way in which fashionable Bath did the same back in Henry Sandford’s day. This was a space where fashionable Georgian society was literally, “on set”. Unsurprisingly, the Royal Crescent has featured in many period dramas, including Jane Austen’s Persuasion and the film, The Duchess, about Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, who incidentally, visited Bath with the 5th Duke of Devonshire in 1782, where they would fatefully meet, the Lady Elizabeth Foster, out of which grew one of the 18th century’s most extraordinary triads.

The Royal Crescent’s birthday was marked on 19 May – “Foundation Stone Day” – with free music performances at No. 1 Royal Crescent as part of the event known as Party in the City, complemented by projections of poetry onto No.1, entitled ‘Words of Stone’ which was commissioned to mark the anniversary. A special procession took place from Widcombe to the Royal Crescent, with a ‘foundation stone’ being paraded through the city by the Natural Theatre Company, which was placed symbolically close to where the original one was laid in 1767.

Royal Crescent 250 is organised by No. 1 Royal Crescent, the Museum of Bath Architecture and the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, in partnership with Bath Festivals, RIBA South West and the Natural Theatre Company, Royal Crescent 250 receiving funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.  On 29 July, The Natural Theatre Company will provide open-air entertainment, telling the history of the building in a series of performances. Fittingly, the Royal Crescent will again become a stage for onlookers, this time – quite literally. On 29 July, known as ‘A Day in the Life of the Royal Crescent’, members of the public are invited to bring a picnic onto the lower lawn from 11-3pm, when – uniquely – the Crescent will be clear of cars in order to allow that same view to be enjoyed that the Georgian residents of Bath saw over two hundred years ago.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer, poet and researcher. Her subject area is royal studies, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna and also researches and writes about Queen Victoria. She has studied historic royalty as an independent scholar for over fifteen years and has spoken on the subject for TV and radio, including the BBC.