The art traveller in Bath: Grayson Perry and all kinds of surprises

Bath is a city of splendid yet delicate archways

Georgian architecture, Roman artefacts and Grayson Perry’s pottery

Although The Art Traveller was planned as a globe-trotting endeavour, obviously, Coronavirus has brought a temporary halt to international art travelling. I’ve been staying close to home, exploring London’s art offerings. But even though I still have a backlog of things to show you, I’m going to tell you about the beautiful city of Bath in the West of England.

Now Bath is fascinating because it’s very historic its best known for its 18th-century architecture built out of a gorgeous Golden coloured local stone. On a sunny day the whole city shines like gold, even on a wet day (and yes, I experienced both). It’s a beautiful mellow colour that juxtaposes perfectly with grey looming skies and even the downpour of slight Misty rain. I didn’t let the rain put me off. I walked out all around the city for hours each day, just soaking up the beautiful atmosphere. Close to the edge of the town, you can see the rolling hills of Somerset, creating gorgeous vistas from every direction.

Georgian architecture

What we call ‘Georgian’ architecture are buildings built during the reign on ‘the Georges’ I-IV. It’s not an ‘English’ style per se, it’s based on the 18th century’s interpretation of the Classical orders of architecture.  As for décor, it is strongly influenced by perceptions of ancient Rome or Greece. It is principally characterized by its dedication to symmetry, proportion and balance, conceived and measured by ratios. It is sometimes referred to as ‘neoclassical.’ Of course, the buildings don’t resemble those of ancient Greece and Rome, but in the 18th-century, archaeology was only beginning. They didn’t understand that the ancients actually painted their buildings on their statues in wild colours. They believe that Greek and Roman architecture and sculpture were all beautiful, bleached white marble. The other thing that’s interesting is that the classical appearance of many of Bath’s buildings was purely facade because if you go around the back of most of them, you’ll see they’re really higgledy-piggledy. Hence, the idea was to create an illusion of classicism. Still, behind the beautiful harmonious facades, every building is entirely different and not harmonious at all.

Pulteney Bridge and the river

Bath is quite an interesting example of a historical city which is both a living city with all the typical city amenities. There are two universities, a lively arts scene, everyday shopping and everything. Still, it all takes place inside this incredible architectural jewel. It really is beautiful, and the architecture is fascinating. One of the most exciting things to see is the Pulteney Bridge, designed by the great neoclassical architect Robert Adam. It is the only bridge remaining in Britain that still has shops built across its full span on both sides. Crossing the bridge on a rainy morning, I popped into a little bakery and bought my breakfast: a rock cake, England’s answered to the croissant.  

Bath Abbey (not actually an abbey now)

The whole city of bath really is art, and that includes Bath Abbey, a stunning example of 10th-century Perpendicular Gothic architecture. It was sensitively restored by the great guru of the neo-gothic,  Sir George Gilbert Scott, a particular architectural hero of mine, known for creating the most romantically beautiful buildings using modern (19thC) methods.

King Edgar was crowned at Bath Abbey in 959. This stained glass does not date from that event.

Real Roman artefacts

the goddess Minerva, found in Bath

But there are real Roman ruins in Bath, just no facades. Bath was built on the site of Hot Springs, the only really truly Hot Springs in all of the UK. The ancient Britons before the Romans were already using these Springs, which they dedicated to their Goddess, Sul. When the Romans came, they understood how significant the Springs were. The Romans were already past masters at creating fabulous bathhouses. Still, they had to heat the water themselves, which was quite an ordeal. Bath must have seemed remarkable to them there. It was all heated up perfectly. They didn’t have to do a thing. Just build some nice lounging areas, and the water would do the rest. To mollify the Britons who they were busy colonizing, they incorporated a temple to the Goddess Sul. They encouraged the Britons to join in the bathing culture – which they enthusiastically did. that’s why the Roman name for the city of bath was Aquae Sulis, the water of Sulis. They also added in a temple for Minerva, goddess of wisdom whom they identified with Sul.

The baths built by the Romans are preserved in four principal features: the Sacred Spring, Which was the site founded by the original Britons; the Roman Temple of Minerva; the Roman Bath House, complete with pools which are remarkably intact because they’ve been restored many times over the centuries, and an archaeological museum. The exterior of the bath complex all dates from the 19th century, complete with ancient-looking 19th century replicas of Roman statuary. These are pretty convincing; they look ancient and mouldering, but they’re actually not very old.

It’s a pretty ingenious natural formation. The spring starts as rain soaking down through limestone aquifers to a depth of 2,700 -4,300 metres. Geothermal energy heats the water up to 96 °C  and pressure brings the hot water to the surface via cracks in the limestone. I’m quite familiar with Hot Springs because we have many of them in British Columbia, where I come from. Still, this one in Bath is the only one in the United Kingdom.

It’s hard to know exactly how much of what we see in the bathing complex is really Roman era and how much is what has been added on over the centuries. Because the baths remained in use up until 1978 when they drilled new boreholes. And created a new modern spa where you can go (and where I certainly did go) to enjoy the fantastic Hot Springs of Bath. This new complex, the Thermae Bath Spa, uses the facades of beautiful 18th-century buildings, but it’s a very modern bathing complex inside, with a gorgeous rooftop pool  

Apparently, you can also drink the waters of Bath; next door to the Roman baths is a beautiful 18th-century building that houses the Pump Room. Today it is a restaurant making posh afternoon teas;. However, you usually can also just go in there and drink the water, but because of Coronavirus, everything has to be booked in advance, and I just didn’t do it. However, my mother, who has visited Bath, told me that she tried the water in the Pump Room and to quote her, it ‘tasted like a fart’. I guess it’s just really mineral-heavy, but I don’t think I missed anything.

Grayson Perry

But even if Bath is an (architectural) artwork in itself in a sense, it also contains some exciting art. The Holburne museum, housed in the fancy townhouse dating from the 18th century, has a good collection, notably featuring the work of Johan Zoffany, an 18th-century painter. What was particularly fascinating during my trip was an exhibition of early works by Grayson Perry. Perry is a very popular contemporary British artist, one of the few who manages to have an extensive following due to his down to earth persona and willingness to speak frankly to people. He also makes accessible and enjoyable television programmes. The lovely thing about Perry is he really never dumbs down anything. He just assumes that everybody he talks to is intelligent enough to engage in discourse, and this is really refreshing. The exhibition showed his earliest works in ceramic, the medium which he’s known for, although he has branched out into textile murals. The pieces showed the development of his career, how he brings together heartfelt political attitudes, a powerful sense of fairness and humanity, interest in early childhood development and psychotherapy, class and gender self-awareness. Famously self-identifying as a transvestite Grayson Perry has, I think,  really done a huge favour to this country for opening up a positive perspective on gender fluidity. I just think he’s a wonderful, life-affirming artist who paradoxically mines the darkest and most terrible things in our psyche for his material, a strange conundrum, yet it really works.

Grayson Perry

Fantastic Bath! And I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I saw in four days. I haven’t even talked about Jane Austen, the big draw for Bath tourists! My favourite Bath person though is the painter Thomas Gainsborough And there are some truly magnificent Gainsborough portraits in the Holburne, but I’m saving that for another post.

A few practical details:

The train took about an hour and a half out of London; it’s only about half an hour, apparently, out of Bristol. if you’re thinking about going to Bath unfortunately for most of the year it’s absolutely full of coach parties and that’s the one good thing about coronavirus – it has kept all of that away. But if you do manage to go at a time when it’s not absolutely chockablock you’ll find just wandering the streets is pure delight and there are astonishingly good pubs and places to eat. I can’t even recommend anything because it’s all it’s all good although I did particularly like the food at the Wild Cafe (10a Queen St, Bath BA1 1HE) and both the food and the view at Frampton’s overlooking the river (The Empire, Grand Parade, Bath BA2 4DF). The best cup of coffee I had in four days (honestly, they really know what they’re doing with the coffee bean there) was a little place called The Green Rocket  (1 Pierrepont St, Bath BA1 1LB). If you want takeaway (and I’m not usually a fan of it) I thought the Schwartz Brothers little kiosk (only for take out) was absolutely amazing, hands down the best takeout I’ve eaten since I was in LA.  

There are plenty of hotels in Bath. I have no idea what it’s like out of coronavirus season, but I just stayed at Premier Inn which is always reliable: very clean, friendly, convenient and although it had a busy Wetherspoons next door it was quiet and I had good sleep. There’s also an Odeon cinema complex next door which was great because I like to go to the cinema when I’m travelling and I saw Tenet. (What to say about that? A radical contrast from the genteel Regency streetscape of Bath. Eminently forgettable film despite wonderfully charismatic leading actors.)