John Wood, the Elder, (1704 – 23 May 1754), was an English
architect, working mainly in Bath.
In 1740 he surveyed
Stonehenge and the Stanton Drew stone circles. He
later wrote extensively about
Bladud and Neo-Druidism. Because of some
of his designs he is also thought to have been involved in the early
years of Freemasonry.
His notable work in Bath included: St John's Hospital, Queen Square,
Prior Park, The Royal Mineral Water Hospital, the North and South
Parades and The Circus. Wood also designed important buildings outside
Bath, including the reconstruction of Llandaff Cathedral, Buckland
House, The Exchange, Bristol, and Liverpool Town Hall. He has been
Nikolaus Pevsner as "one of the outstanding architects of
1 Early life
2 Style and vision
2.1 Speculative Building
3 Bath architecture
4 Architecture outside Bath
Stonehenge and Stanton Drew surveys
Bladud and the druids
8 Death and legacy
Wood was born in
Twerton near Bath, and baptised in St. James’s
Church (now demolished). He received a good but basic education at
King Edward's School. His father George was a local builder.
During his teenage years and early twenties, Wood worked for Robert
Benson, the first
Baron Bingley at his estate, Bramham Park,
Yorkshire. He then became involved in speculative builds on the
Cavendish estate in London.  
Style and vision
Through reading, site visits and practical experience Wood developed
his unique ideas in order to create a master plan for his home town of
such ambition it is almost overwhelming. Through his continual
self-education, Wood refined his architectural beliefs and by his
mid-twenties had combined his passion for
Palladianism (a type of
classical architecture) with his obsession with Ancient British
history, and almost certainly Freemasonry.
Wood set out to restore Bath to what he believed was its former
ancient glory as one of the most important and significant cities in
England. In 1725 he developed an ambitious plan for his home town,
which due to opposition he developed outside the existing city
walls. Wood created a distinctive image for the city, one that has
greatly contributed to Bath’s continuing popularity.
Wood's grand plans for Bath were consistently hampered by the
Corporation (council), churchmen, landowners and moneymen. Instead he
approached Robert Gay, a barber surgeon from London, and the owner of
the Barton Farm estate in the Manor of Walcot, outside the city
walls. On these fields Wood established Bath’s architectural
style, the basic principles of which were copied by all those
architects who came after him. Wood created one of the greatest
attractions in the world, recognised by UNESCO for embodying a number
of outstanding universal values — including the deliberate
creation of a beautiful and unified city.
At Queen Square, Wood introduced speculative building to Bath. This
meant that whilst Wood leased the land from Robert Gay for £137 per
annum, designed the frontages, and divided the ground into the
individual building plots, he sub-let to other individual builders or
masons. They had two years grace in which to get the walls up and the
roof on, after which they had to pay a more substantial rent. As
Bath was booming, most plots were reserved before the two years were
up, providing the builder with the necessary income to complete the
house. Ultimately this meant less work and risk for Wood; in addition
he received £305 per annum in rents, leaving him a healthy profit of
£168 – the equivalent today (in terms of average earnings) of
Wood is known for designing many of the streets and buildings of Bath,
such as St John's Hospital, (1727–28), Queen Square (1728–36),
Prior Park (1734–41), The Royal Mineral Water Hospital
(1738–42) the North (1740) and South Parades (1743–48), The Circus
(1754–68), and other notable houses, many of which are Grade I
In 1716 the architect William Killigrew was commissioned to rebuild
the St John's Hospital, which had been founded around 1180, by Bishop
Reginald Fitz Jocelin
Reginald Fitz Jocelin making it among the oldest almshouses in
England. Construction continued after 1727 with John Wood, the
Elder undertaking the building, as his first work in Bath, when he was
Ralph Allen's Town House was commissioned by
Ralph Allen who commenced
building it in or shortly after 1727. Opinion is divided as to whether
John Wood the Elder designed the "Town House", however the
ostentatious decoration is not a style he uses elsewhere in Bath.
Wood, in his "Essay towards the future of Bath", says — while
Mr.Allen was making the Addition to the North Part of his House in
Lilliput Alley he new fronted and raised the old Building a full Story
higher; it consists of a Basement Story sustaining a double Story
under the Crowning; and this is surmounted by an Attick, which created
a sixth Rate House, and a Sample for the greatest Magnificence that
was ever proposed by me for our City Houses.
North side, Queen Square
Queen Square was Wood's first speculative development. Wood lived in a
house on the square. Numbers 21–27 make up the north side.
Which was described by
Nikolaus Pevsner as "one of the finest
Palladian compositions in
England before 1730". The west side
(numbers 14 - 18 and 18A, 19 & 20) was designed by John Pinch in
1830 and differs from Wood's original design as the central block is
in Neo-Grecian style. 16-18 is now occupied by the Bath Royal
Literary and Scientific Institution. The south side (numbers 5-13)
which was originally left open is now occupied by a hotel.
Prior Park, the Palladian mansion built in 1742 for Ralph Allen
In 1742, Wood was commissioned to build a home for the mayor of Bath
Ralph Allen, on a hill overlooking the city of Bath. This building is
Grade I listed and has housed
Prior Park College since 1830.
The building for the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases
was designed by Wood and built with
Bath Stone donated by Ralph Allen.
It was later enlarged, firstly in 1793 by the addition of an attic
storey and later in 1860 by a second building erected on the west side
of the earlier edifice. It is a Grade II listed building. There is
a fine pediment, in Bath stone, on 1860 building depicting the parable
of the Good Samaritan.
North Parade was part of a wider scheme to build a Royal Forum,
including South Parade, Pierrepont and Duke Streets, similar to Queen
Square, which was never completed. Wood designed the facade, of Bath
Stone, after which a variety of builders completed the work with
different interiors and rear elevations.
Wood Street was built in 1778 an has been designated as a Grade I
listed building. The street was designed by John Wood, the Elder
and built by Thomas Baldwin in the same style as the adjacent Queen
His final masterpiece was the Circus, built on Barton Fields
outside the old city walls of Bath, although he never lived to see his
plans put into effect as he died less than three months after the
first stone was laid. It was left to his son, John Wood, the Younger
to complete the scheme to his father's design. Wood's inspiration was
the Roman Colosseum, but whereas the
Colosseum was designed to be seen
from the outside, the Circus faces inwardly. Three classical Orders,
(Greek Doric, Roman/Composite and Corinthian) are used, one above the
other, in the elegant curved facades. The frieze of the Doric
entablature is decorated with alternating triglyphs and 525 pictorial
emblems, including serpents, nautical symbols, devices representing
the arts and sciences, and masonic symbols. The parapet is adorned
with stone acorn finials. He demonstrated how a row of town houses
could be dignified, almost palatial. The uses of uniform facades and
rhythmic proportions in conjunction with classical principles of
unerring symmetry were followed throughout the city.
Architecture outside Bath
The Exchange, Bristol
The Exchange, Bristol (1741–43), this was roofed over
in the 19th century
Wood also designed important buildings outside Bath, the
reconstruction of Llandaff Cathedral 1734–1749, The Exchange,
Bristol 1741–43, Liverpool Town Hall 1749–54.
Wood's work on the rebuilding of
Llandaff Cathedral gained the
nicknamed of the "Italian Temple". It was used for a hundred years but
never completed and only a few stones remain.
The Exchange in Bristol was built in 1741–43 by Wood, with carvings
by Thomas Paty. Wood was also the architect of the Liverpool Exchange,
which was completed in 1754 and gutted by fire in 1795. The London
Exchange of Wood's day was also destroyed by fire in 1838. Bristol's
Exchange is therefore unique, the only surviving 18th-century exchange
building in England. When finished in 1743 the Exchange, as planned,
had "the outward appearance of one grand structure," and the
much-admired exterior remains today largely as built. The front of the
building has Corinthian columns in the centre and pilasters to the
sides. A central semicircular-arched doorway has cast-iron lion-head
knockers. A frieze with human and animal heads symbolises trade, and a
royal coat of arms is displayed in the tympanum. The rear of the
building is symmetrical with pedimented windows and semicircular
Liverpool Town Hall
Liverpool Town Hall (1749–54), with later dome and portico
Liverpool Town Hall
Liverpool Town Hall was built between 1749 and 1754 to a design by
Wood replacing an earlier town hall nearby. An extension to the north
James Wyatt was added in 1785. The ground floor acted as
the exchange, and a council room and other offices were on the upper
floor. The ground floor had a central courtyard surrounded by Doric
colonnades but it was "dark and confined, and the merchants preferred
to transact business in the street outside". Following a fire in
1795 the hall was largely rebuilt and the portico and dome were added
James Wyatt who also redesigned the interiors.
Buckland House is a large Georgian stately home and the manor house of
Oxfordshire built in 1757. Sir Robert Throckmorton, the
fourth baronet of Coughton, who commissioned Wood to design the
new Buckland House as a shooting lodge and weekend
John Wood, the Younger
John Wood, the Younger substantially revised the plan
and added the distinctive octagonal pavilions to the sides of the
house. The final house is illustrated in the 1767 volume of Vitruvius
Stonehenge and Stanton Drew surveys
Part of Wood's plan of Stonehenge
Wood also left us the most important plan of
Stonehenge ever made; his
survey, carried out in 1740 and published in his Choir Gaure, Vulgarly
Called Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain (1747), was annotated with
hundreds of measurements, which he resolved on the ground to one half,
sometimes even one quarter, of an inch. This work has been
largely overlooked, partly due to criticisms made by the antiquarian
William Stukeley. Wood’s interpretation of the monument as a
place of pagan ritual was vehemently attacked by Stukeley who saw the
druids not as pagans, but as biblical patriarchs. Stukely also
failed to see the significance of recording the stones in such detail.
However, using Wood's original dimensions it has been possible to
re-draw his work on a computer and compare the record with the modern
plan of Stonehenge. His survey has immense archaeological value, for
he recorded the stones fifty years before the collapse of the western
trilithon (which fell in 1797 and was not restored until 1958).
In the same year Wood surveyed and mapped the Stanton Drew stone
circles, noting the different stones used and suggesting the layout
was based on the Pythagorean planetary system.
Detail of some of the emblems used by Wood in The Circus
Many of the buildings he designed are littered with icons and symbols
associated with Freemasonry, leading many people who have studied his
work to believe that he was a member of the organisation, even though
there is no documentary proof. Wood wrote extensively about sacred
geometry, and argued that the myths of the supposed founder of Bath,
King Bladud, were based on truth. He claimed that ancient British
stone circles were the remains of once more elaborate buildings
designed by Bladud.
It has been suggested that Wood (and his son, also John) were
Freemasonry either via one of their building partnerships
and/or via symbolism in their architecture. In his Masonic lecture and
Stephen Ben Cox tentatively suggests an image for this as the
square (Queen's Square), the circle (The Circus) and the crescent (The
Royal Crescent): standing for Earth, Sun and Moon, and following the
masonic path of the sun in the Lodge from east (the Master chair) to
south (the Junior Warden) and exiting in the west (the Senior Warden)
as a symbol of man's spiritual progress in life from the rough to the
When viewed from the air, the Circus, along with Queens Square and the
adjoining Gay Street, form a key shape, which is a masonic symbol
similar to those that adorn many of Wood's buildings. Cox notes
that there is no direct evidence of deliberate Masonic expression in
the architecture (although there are plenty of carved signs and
symbols which are important to Freemasonry). He goes on however to say
that it is interesting to note that Queen Square is lower down the
hill whilst The Circus overlooks it at the top of the hill, whilst to
the west The Crescent faces out across the open space of the park
sloping away from it.
Bladud and the druids
In many of Woods writings, and particularly The Essay towards a
description of Bath, he describes Bladud, a legendary king of the
Britons for whose existence there is no historical evidence, as the
founder of Bath. Wood repeats and embellishes earlier stories that
Bladud founded the city because while he was in Athens he contracted
leprosy, and when he returned home he was imprisoned as a result, but
escaped and went far off to go into hiding. He found employment as a
swineherd at Swainswick, about two miles from the later site of Bath,
and noticed that his pigs would go into an alder-moor in cold weather
and return covered in black mud. He found that the mud was warm, and
that they did it to enjoy the heat. He also noticed that the pigs
which did this did not suffer from skin diseases as others did, and on
trying the mud bath himself found that he was cured of his leprosy. He
was then restored to his position as heir-apparent to his father, and
founded Bath so that others might also benefit as he had done. Wood
also writes about
Neo-Druidism which had been popularised in the 17th
and 18th centuries by writers such as John Aubrey,
John Toland and
William Stukeley in conjunction with exploration of the stone circles
Stonehenge and Stanton Drew.
Death and legacy
Wood died in Bath and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's
church, Swainswick. Many of his building projects were continued
by his son
John Wood, the Younger
John Wood, the Younger including; Royal Crescent, Bath
Assembly Rooms and Buckland House. He also finished The
Following his death in Bath, and almost certainly within hours of it,
a plaster death mask was taken off the face of Wood. This was a not
uncommon practice where the deceased was famous. The death mask may
have been made as a prelude to the intended making of a portrait bust
that was never executed in his widow’s lifetime. Following the death
of his widow in 1766, the death mask (doubtless amongst her
possessions) was then employed to enable a bust of John Wood to be
carved, appropriately from wood. It was completed in 1767 and the
reverse of the bust bears an inscription of that date, the name of
Wood and Wood’s age at death. 1767 marks the commencement by
Wood’s son, John Wood the younger, of work on the Royal Crescent.
The bust might have been carved by a specialist wood carver from the
nearby commercial seaport of Bristol where ships’ figureheads would
regularly have been carved, often from softwoods such as pine. The
bust, in a private collection, records the features of the architect
at his death, and is the only known bust portrait of the famous
architect, and is one of only two portraits of him. The whereabouts of
the face mask from which the bust is derived are not known and,
presumably, the mask has not survived.
There is an off-campus dormitory complex belonging to the University
of Bath named John Wood Complex, on Avon Street.
Bath is now a World Heritage Site, at least partly as a result of the
^ a b Pollard & Pevsner 2006, p. 286.
^ Elliot 2004, p. 56.
^ a b Mowl & Earnshaw, Tim & Brian (1988). John Wood:
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^ Mowl & Earnshaw 1988, pp. 13–14
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^ a b Frost, Amy (2004). Obsession: John Wood and the Creation of
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^ Wood, John (1765). Essay Towards a Description of Bath. Bath:
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^ a b c Mowl & Earnshaw page 213
^ Mowl & Earnshaw page 214
^ "The Exchange". Images of England. Archived from the original on 14
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^ a b "Parks & Gardens UK: Buckland House, Oxfordshire/Summary".
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^ a b "The Dovecote: History". Retrieved 18 September 2008.
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^ Elliot 2004, pp. 23–26.
^ Stukeley, William, 1740,
Stonehenge A Temple Restor'd to the British
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ISNI: 0000 0000 7243 7675
BNF: cb12253006m (dat