Jessica Hope takes a close look at the latest exhibition to open at Victoria Art Gallery and discovers how Bathonians were kept entertained in centuries gone by
At the height of the Georgian era, Bath was second only to London as a centre for all things fun and frivolous. While wealthy tourists flocked to the city to take the waters and enjoy the supposed health benefits of the thermae baths, there was in fact an undercurrent of drinking, gambling and prostitution taking hold of this genteel city.
Victoria Art Gallery’s latest exhibition Entertainment in Bath explores these themes, highlighting the fun-loving decadence that went on in the 18th century, while celebrating the city as a cultural hotspot from the Georgian era up to the present day.
While many were drawn to Bath for its elegant exterior, the exhibition begins by counteracting this ideal, revealing the level of prostitution in the city in the 18th century. Avon Street was once a centre for such illicit activities, and the exhibition suggests that Thomas Rowlandson’s illustration of The Fish Market showing women selling produce could in fact be a pretence for group of prostitutes.
As Bath began to gain a reputation for these less than upright activities, those who opposed them were drawn to the city to denounce them. John Wesley – one of the founders of Methodism – once had an almighty row with the Master of Ceremonies Richard ‘Beau’ Nash in the 1730s, scorning him for his encouragement of the shameless behaviour of the social elites. This illustration details Wesley, towering above Nash in a pulpit, condemning him for his depraved activities.
The gambling, partying and drinking that Nash championed – and consequently made his fortune from – didn’t stop Bath from attracting the biggest names from the world of Georgian music, theatre and art. One of the prized pieces from the exhibition is Thomas Gainsborough’s exquisite full-length portrait of German composer Johann Christian Fischer, which is on loan from the Royal Collection. Fischer is an example of one of the ground-breaking musicians who came to Bath in the Georgian period who courted a dedicated local following and increased the city’s credibility as a prominent place for upcoming and renowned musicians.Johann Christian Fischer by Thomas Gainsborough, 1774-80. Image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
The exhibition also explores examples of popular culture that aren’t too dissimilar to what we might get up to in our free time nowadays, such as catching up with friends at a bustling coffee house, listening to buskers around the city centre, and shopping on Milsom Street. More unusual pastimes featured include witnessing a camel in a travelling menagerie (these were very popular among Victorians), or watching stonemasons transporting Bath stone along a private railway beside Ralph Allen’s Prior Park.
After the Lower Assembly Rooms burned down in the 1820s (you can see a remarkable depiction of this in the exhibition) Bath had lost its appeal as a pleasure city – those who had frequented Bath in its Georgian heyday had decided to retire here, so younger generations moved on to alternative, more buzzing cities like Brighton. Now with a more respectable social scene, Victorian Bath opened public parks where people of all classes could enjoy the green space – Sydney Gardens changed from an exclusive place for the social elite to a popular spot for outdoor entertainment.Sydney Gardens bandstand