The History of the Holburne Collection
The Collection: Library and Archive
Sir William Holburne’s library, consisting of approximately 1800 volumes, forms an integral part of the collections of the Holburne Museum of Art. It informs and illustrates almost all aspects of the owner’s character and life. It reveals that Holburne (1793-1874) was a genuine 'reading man', who built his library thoughtfully and systematically to support his interests. Most importantly, he acquired books which informed him about his developing collections. His library is, therefore, much more than a standard Victorian 'Gentleman’s Library'. When he died in 1874, the Bath Chronicle of February 19th of that year described it as 'the finest collection of books in the city' and commented on its remarkable condition.
Aspects of Holburne’s life, character and interests which are revealed in the library include the following:
The Holburne Family Bible, listing in manuscript the births and deaths of members of his family, establishes Holburne’s interest in his own genealogy, and is supported by the existence in the archive of a small manuscript account by him of his family. Volumes on the history and antiquities of Scotland illustrate his interest in the family’s origins in Menstrie, near Stirling.
Other volumes, which date from the eighteenth century, appear to have been inherited from his parents and his distinguished grandfather, Admiral Holburne (e.g. The British Empire in America, with maps, 2 vols, 1741, European Settlements in America, 1757 and Southgate’s Tour through America, Persia etc, 1747). Other books in this group would have provided the young Holburne with a background of English history (Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion, 6 vols, 1707, Howell’s Medulla Historiae Anglicana, 1724 and Lediard’s Life of the Duke of Marlborough, 1736).
Also among early publications is the Barbou Edition of the Latin Classics (Aesop, Cicero, Horace, Ovid, Pliny, Terence and Virgil), a group of standard works of French literature by Fontaine, Moliere, Montaigne, Rousseau and Racine, and essential English classics including Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Johnson and Cowper. These would have formed the 'backbone' of any English gentleman’s library of the period. What is significant is that Sir William Holburne continued to acquire literary works throughout his life. The library includes works by Byron, a full set of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels and poetical works, and William Beckford’s Vathek.
Holburne’s career in the British Navy from the age of twelve, in 1805, to his retirement on half pay in 1815, covered one of the most dramatic periods in British Naval history. During his service, and after he retired, Holburne maintained his interest in the sea and British naval history through the acquisition of such volumes as Clarke and MacArthur’s Life of Nelson from his Manuscripts, 1809, Churchill’s Life of Nelson, 1811, and Sir Harris Nicholas’s Nelson’s Despatches and Letters,1846.
His interest in the history of his own time extended to studying the career of Napoleon (Gourgand, Napoleon et la Grande Armee en Russia, 1825, and Wellington, (Sir William Napier, English Battles and Sieges in the Peninsula, 1852), and Maxwell’s Irish Rebellion in 1798, 1845.
Further aspects of Holburne’s interest in the sea can be found in such practical works as Norie’s Practical Navigation,1810, Falconer’s Marine Dictionary,1815, and accounts of exploration, which include Franklin’s Journey to the Polar Sea, 1819-22, 1823, Parry’s North-West Passage,1821-4, and Goodridge’s Narrative of Shipwreck in the South Seas, 1841. Sir Henry Englefield’s Beauties and Antiquities of the Isle of Wight, 1816, links to recently discovered evidence in the Holburne archive of regular summer visits to Cowes by Holburne and his sisters, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were in residence at Osborne House.
Sir William Holburne’s career as a collector of art began during his travels on the European continent in 1824-5. His library contains a large number of volumes which he acquired in order to equip himself with up-to-date information about the countries through which he travelled and the sites he visited. Examples of these books include Clarke’s Travels in Various Countries of Europe and Asia, 1816, Hakewill’s Picturesque Tour of Italy, 1820, Guide de la Ville de Florence, 1823, Goldsmith’s History of Rome, 1822, Hughes’ Travels in Sicily, Greece and Albania, 1820, Madame de Genlis’ Manuel de Voyageur,1816, and an 1821 edition of Tacitus on Germany with modern notes and maps, as well as French, Italian and German dictionaries.
Holburne’s interest in travel extended further than his own journeys as a young man, and later works in the library include accounts of Persia, India, and Dr. Livingstone’s Missionary Travels in South Africa of 1857. The library thus illustrates the progress of a man’s reading from his youth in Georgian England to his middle age in the Victorian British Empire.
Nearly every aspect of Holburne’s collection of works of art and other objects is referenced by his library, demonstrating his genuine interest and desire to learn about the items he acquired. Examples of this process are Walpole’s and Vertue’s Anecdotes of Painting in England, 1762, James’s Flemish, Dutch, German and Italian Schools of Painting, 1820-22, Bryan’s Biographical and Critical Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (one edition of 1816, another of 1853), De Lairesse’s Art of Painting, 1817, Meteyard’s Life of Wedgwood, 1865, and Tymms and Wyatt's, Art of Illuminating, 1860.
A particular illustration of his meticulous study through books as well as objects is evident in his collection of mineral specimens, which have been rediscovered and displayed in the museum recently. As well as raw and polished samples, the collection is enriched by the newest publications on mineralogy, e.g. by Conybeare and Phillips, Outline of the Geology of England and Wales, 1822. This interest was deepened later in Holburne’s life by his acquisition of new publications in the 1860s by Rev. C.W. King on antique gems, which also formed part of his collection.
A very significant group of books is the series of catalogues for auctions of works of art, books and other objects of vertu, dating from the 1840s and 1850s. These include the sales of the Sussex, Beckford, Soulages, Stowe and Bernal Collections. Holburne acquired a number of highly important objects from these sales. As Holburne’s journals and personal accounts do not survive to inform us of his collecting activity, these volumes provide vital information about the provenance of a number of his key acquisitions.
Lastly in this category is the collection of exhibition catalogues of the 1860s, which identify the objects which Holburne lent to the famous early international exhibitions which include historic works of art: the South Kensington Exhibition of 1862, Paris Exhibition Universelle of 1867 and Leeds Exhibition of 1868. These publications list Holburne’s name as a significant lender alongside many of the other remarkable collectors of the period, from the royal family and the Rothschilds to the Prime Minister William Gladstone, a fellow collector of Wedgwood ceramics.
On a final, lighter note, a few surviving books in the library point to Sir William Holburne’s enjoyment of nature, the countryside and country pursuits. These help to establish a little more of the nature and perhaps the humour of a man who is still difficult to characterise. Such works are Thomas Best’s Angling and Fly-fishing, 1814, and Bainbridge’s Fly-Fisher’s Guide, 1816, Bewick’s History of Birds, 1804, Dobson’s Kunopaeidia, or Practical Essay on Training the English Spaniel or Pointer, 1814, and William Hone’s famous Every-Day Book, 1832-8, with its charming descriptions of English folklore and country customs.