Over the centuries Bath has inspired arts and culture, writers and painters, provided the backdrop for countless novels, films and television programmes, and enjoyed being in the spotlight as England’s 18th-century fashion hub. It is world famous for its spa heritage and splendid Georgian architecture, and has developed a lively contemporary cultural scene to boot. It would be impossible to exhaust Bath’s cultural attractions, whatever time of year you visit.
Festivals and fairs
Well-established annual events are a major draw, including Mozartfest, FilmBath, Bath Fringe Festival, Bath Children’s Literature Festival and Bath Beer Festival, as well as new events such as The Bath Festival, a multi-arts festival with music and literature at its heart. The city’s five leading theatres – Theatre Royal, Ustinov Studio, the Egg, the Rondo Theatre, and the Mission Theatre – attract world-renowned companies and directors, and together host a lively and incredibly varied programme of events. And then there’s Bath’s strong culture of music.
Beautiful Bath Abbey provides the largest concert venue in the city, staging many organ recitals and around 20 concerts every year. The Forum, a 1,700-seat Art Deco venue which started off life as a cinema, hosts regular gigs and shows. And the city’s most legendary venue when it comes to seeing current bands is Moles, which has been championing exciting new local and global acts since it opened in 1978. Deliciously dark and atmospheric, over the decades this night time venue has witnessed the sights and sounds of Radiohead, The Smiths, Eurythmics, Oasis, Bastille, Mumford & Sons, and Ed Sheeran amongst countless others. Local bands are often given the support slots for more established national and international artists, offering them a superb platform on which to showcase their talents.
Bath has always attracted and inspired artists, too. The annual Bath Art Fair, which takes place at the start of March, has now moved to Bath Pavilion. The event is designed to make art accessible to all, and it showcases some of the best contemporary professional artists in the country. You can find original paintings in all sorts of media, plus ceramics, jewellery and sculpture from over 80 of the nation’s leading independent artists, all under one roof. The artists themselves are on hand to talk about their creations, and you can pick up prints from £30 and original paintings from £99.
Well-established annual events are a major draw, including Mozartfest, FilmBath, Bath Fringe Festival, Bath Children’s Literature Festival and Bath Beer Festival
Many famous painters have lived and worked in the city, particularly during its 18th-century heyday. One of these was English portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), who moved to Bath to live at number 17 The Circus, where he attracted a fashionable portrait clientèle. Others include English portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) and John Maggs (1819-1896), a painter famous for his coaching scenes. Works by Gainsborough can be found at the public Victoria Art Gallery, where British art lovers flock to see its free, permanent exhibits.
Occupying a grand Grade 2-listed 19th-century building, the gallery’s collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts include many British oil paintings dating from the 17th century through to the present day. Alongside Gainsborough you will find the likes of Thomas Jones Barker and Walter Sickert. Further paintings by Gainsborough can be found at the Holburne Museum, which is open daily (10am-5pm except Sundays and Bank Holidays which are 11am-5pm) and also offers free entry at special times (3pm-5pm every Wednesday afternoon, and from 5pm-9pm on the last Friday in the month). This houses fine and decorative arts built around the private collection of Sir William Holburne (1793-1874), which included more than 4,000 objects, pictures and books, all bequeathed to the people of Bath by his sister in 1882.
Once the museum had opened, his collection was further expanded and today it is housed in the former Sydney Hotel, a Grade 1-listed building situated at the end of Great Pulteney Street. Other artists featured in the collection include Guardi, Ramsay, Stubbs and Zoffany, and the museum also hosts changing temporary exhibitions, free performances, creative workshops, talks and family events. There is a bookshop and a cafe that opens out onto Sydney Gardens, which itself was a favourite walk for English novelist Jane Austen, who set part of her novel Northanger Abbey across from the Holburne in Great Pulteney Street.
Many famous painters have lived and worked in the city, particularly during its 18th-century heyday
Fashion and Jane Austen
Since Bath was once known as the most fashionable city in England, no visit is complete without a trip to the well-established Fashion Museum. Housed in the wonderful Assembly Rooms, a grand 18th-century National Trust building that is adorned with sparkling chandeliers, the Museum showcases a world-class collection of historic and contemporary fashions, and hosts exciting temporary exhibitions and one-off events. It is an eye-opener for anyone interested in discovering how we used to dress, and also showcases some world-famous outfits from modern times.
Every year since the museum opened in 1963, it has asked an independent fashion journalist to select a dress or outfit that accurately represents the most important new ideas in contemporary fashion. These are brought together in the “Dress of the Year” section of the collection, and today you can find leading fashion names represented there such as Christian Dior, Donatella Versace, Mary Quant, John Bates, Ossie Clark, Giorgio Armani, John Galliano, Ralph Lauren, Alexander McQueen, Alber Elbaz and Jean Muir. Visitors can also play dress-up in replica Victorian and Georgian outfits, and take photographs against a backdrop image of Bath’s elegant Royal Crescent.
If you’re interested in Bath’s fashion heritage you can also learn a lot at the Jane Austen Centre, which is housed within a period building right in the centre. Fans of the famous writer and her literary classics can learn about her time in the city and the effect living here had on her and her writing. Best known for penning novels which comment upon the social life of the British landed gentry at the end of the 18th century, Austen lived and wrote in Bath for several years. The city provided the inspiration and backdrop to two of her well-known novels – Northanger Abbey and Persuasion – and features in many other writings. Attracting thousands of visitors each year from around the globe, the Centre houses a lifelike Jane Austen Waxwork and uses costumed character guides, and paraphernalia such as historic maps and period costumes, to give visitors a fascinating insight into her life at that time.
You can stop off afterwards for some refreshments at the quaint Regency Tea Room, which is open daily for afternoon and cream teas as well as lunches, cakes and drinks. Fans of Austen will also want to visit The Grand Pump Room in the Abbey Church Yard at the heart of the city: a neo-classical salon which featured in both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion as a popular meeting place for the upper class. The doorway is right next to the main street entrance to the Roman Baths, and inside you can enjoy a traditional afternoon tea, or indulge in one of their other packages such as a Somerset High Tea or Champagne Pump Room Tea. You can also sample the waters from the natural spring which fills the Roman Baths.
Since Bath was once known as the most fashionable city in England, no visit is complete without a trip to the well-established Fashion Museum