John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger



 

John Wood the Elder (1704-54)

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Wood’s House
House built by John Wood the Elder in the 1730s in Bath / John Wood the Younger’s house (at the corner of Queen Square and Gay Street)
[click on the picture to enlarge it]

The son of a mason from Bath, John Wood was, at one and the same time, a building contractor, an architect and an urban visionary. It is as much thanks to his skill as a building contractor as to his talent as an architect that the spa town was able to become one of the first showcases of the English Palladian style, and at the same time a model of urbanism imitated for more than a century in a lot of other English-speaking towns. The classical sobriety of his architecture should not however obscure the Druidical musings of this strange man, who wrote a bewildering story about the origins of Bath, of which the founder was supposed to be the mythical King Bladud, in the 5th century before Christ. This person, he believed, had received his education in Athens, and had therefore established the link between classical Antiquity and Druid religions.

After having first worked in London as a building contractor in the residential West End district, notably for the Earl of Oxford and the Duke of Chandos, Wood went back to settle in his native town in 1727. The moment was favourable for the ambitious building contractor, because the influx of wealthy visitors to Bath required the building of quality lodgings. Wood therefore elaborated grandiose projects, which he outlined in his book An Essay Towards a Description of Bath (1749):

A grand Place of Assembly, to be called the Royal Forum of Bath; another Place, no less magnificent, for the Exhibition of Sports, to be called the Grand Circus; and a third Place, of equal State with either of the former, for the practice of medicinal Exercises, to be called the Imperial Gymnasium of the City, from a Work of that Kind, taking its rise at first in Bath, at the time of the Roman Emperors.

The reference to Ancient Rome would evidently haunt the architect throughout his career, and even if his initial projects were not carried out exactly in this way, Wood indisputably gave his urban projects a neo-classical majesty which was highly novel for his era in provincial towns.

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Wood’s first striking achievement in Bath was Queen Square, completed in 1736. It was a series of quality residential lodgings, built in local stone, surrounded by a geometrical garden intended for promenades. The North side of the Square offered a facade harmonized by a vast ornamental front and punctuated by columns and pilasters, giving the illusion of a palace. All the buildings of the North and South parades (1743) corresponding to the “Forum” of his plan, freely inspired from Palladio, echoed the same type of architectural decoration.

John Wood the Elder also built isolated buildings in Bath, like the St. Mary Chapel (1734) and the General Hospital (1742). Prior Park House (1748) built for the local philanthropist and patron, Ralph Allen, on a hill overlooking the town, is one of the most spectacular imitations of a Palladian villa, with its majestic central portico and service wings. The architect was also employed in other towns, notably in Bristol and Liverpool, where he drew plans for commodity exchanges.

John Wood’s most original urban project in the town of Bath was the Circus, a paved circular space, bordered by the alignment of identical facades, where three series of pilasters were superimposed. It represented a sort of miniature inverted Colosseum. The construction had just started when Wood died (1754), and it was his son, John Wood the Younger (1728 - 1781), who supervised the construction.

It is probable that the old architect conceived the idea, if not the details, of the Royal Crescent (1775), although the task of constructing it also fell to his son. This crescent, or half-ellipse, of terraced houses, punctuated by ionic columns and overlooking the countryside, represented a culmination in private urbanism stamped with neo-classicism. However, the Royal Crescent, like the Circus, did not only draw its influences from Classical architecture. In John Wood senior’s fertile imagination, they were also probably far off echoes of Druid Sun and Moon Temples, which he thought had existed on the higher slopes that overlook the North of Bath. Like Prior Park, the Royal Crescent overlooks green countryside, ideally blending, in the eyes of 18th century inhabitants, the world of nature and that of culture, in the spirit of landscaping established a little earlier by William Kent and Lancelot Brown. Thus John Wood the Elder’s architectural production went well beyond the notion of simple aesthetic originality. This creator knew how to adapt urban scenery to the tastes and needs of a society largely dominated by elite landowners, and to introduce into the town of Bath the perspectives of lush greenery to which they had been used to in their country homes.

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John Wood the younger (1728-1781)

Trained by his father John Wood the Elder, the young architect of the same name was from the early age of twenty-one entrusted with building the Liverpool Exchange. At his father’s death in 1754, he completed the latter’s work in Bath in a masterly manner, both as an architect and as a contractor. He finished the Circus before moving on to erecting the impressive semi-ellipse of the Royal Crescent on the heights overlooking the city (1767-75). This was in effect a new urban form, combining the theatrical design of a square or circus with an open view towards the gardens sloping down from it. It was so successful that it was frequently imitated in other spas such as Buxton (Derbyshire) or seaside resorts like Torquay (Devon), as well as the New Town of Edinburgh.

In addition to that spectacular achievement, Wood the Younger erected interesting public buildings in Bath, among which the New Assembly Rooms (1769-71) and the Hot Baths (1773-77). In the purest English neo-Palladian tradition, these buildings show a marked contrast between the severity of their exterior and the elegance of their inner spaces.

Though the work of John Wood the Younger in Bath might be sufficient to place him in the forefront of English eighteenth-century architects, other less well-known buildings should also be mentioned, such as Buckland House (Berkshire) or Salisbury Hospital (Wiltshire). Finelly, he is the author of an original collection of plans for modest labourers’ houses, A Series of Plans, for Cottages or habitations of the Labourer (1781).

 

  • COLVIN, Howard. A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, London: John Murray, 1978. s.v. John WOOD.
  • ELLIOTT, Kirsten. The Myth-Maker: John Wood 1704-1754. Bath, Akeman Press, 2004.
  • Tim MOWL & Brian EARNSHAW John Wood, Architect of Obsession. Bath: Millstream Books, 1988, 224 p.

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