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Cheltenham's overlooked genius

John Buonarotti Papworth is not to be found in most listings of British architecture’s First Eleven but it’s sometimes difficult to understand why he’s not more well known.

He was a distinguished architect in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and such a whizz at drawing that his contemporaries compared him to Michelangelo (hence his adopted second name).

Among other things, he became architect to the king of Württemberg, an influence on Schinkel, the designer of a model new town on the Ohio river and the planner of the Montpellier and Lansdowne estates in Cheltenham. My first visit has fired an interest in the town and its heyday; Papworth and his contemporaries have become a mild obsession.

Cheltenham’s popularity began in the late 1780s when George III spent a few weeks there taking the waters. They didn’t cure his porphyria, but his stay made the town fashionable and, over the next 50 years, everyone in society stayed in Cheltenhan from Jane Austen to the Duke of Wellington, Byron to the young Princess Victoria.

All these visitors needed accommodation and, by the 1820s, Papworth and his contemporaries were busily building terraces, crescents and squares as accommodation for an elegant and transient summer society. In his two estates, Papworth designed one of the first garden suburbs, with terraces and villas set amid greenery.

The approaches of Papworth and his colleagues were rather different from those of their near contemporaries like Playfair and Gillespie Graham in Edinburgh New Town, who worked to a series of grand town plans, with nature carefully contained in formal gardens. In Cheltenham, the springs were scattered, so a landowner lucky enough to find the mineral-rich water bubbling up on his property would develop his estate round his source.

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