When John Wesley visited Bath in 1739 to inveigh against the follies that flourished at hot springs, he was challenged by a fleshy, domineering figure in a white beaver hat, who demanded to know by what authority he was preaching. Wesley's retort (or so he claimed) was 'Pray, sir, are you a justice of the peace, or the mayor of this city? By what authority do you ask me these things?' Richard ('Beau') Nash was at a loss for a ready reply. The 'King of Bath', as he liked to be known, was the gamester son of a Swansea bottlemaker, a heavyweight playboy whose abundant assurance, or chutzpah, had qualified him to act as arbiter of elegance at a rowdy Bethesda not yet marked out for international fame. He had no more right to invoke the conventicle against illegal preaching than he had to call out the military. How this myth-surrounded adventurer came to play the fashionable despot, and in effect to impose his own tax-supported empire, or 'Company', on the Corporation of Bath, is the puzzle explored by John Eglin in The Imaginary Autocrat. It is a task that was first attempted by Oliver Goldsmith in a 'quickie' life put together immediately after Nash's death.
LRB 21 July 2005 | PDF Download