The History of the Holburne Collection
The Collection: Minerals and Hardstones
Sir William Holburne is usually seen as a major collector of paintings, sculpture and decorative art, but recently his interest in collecting and understanding minerals has come to light. Although relatively small, his collection of raw, polished and worked minerals, and his books, illustrate his awareness of the natural world in the period between 1820 and 1860.
Collections of natural 'curiosities' were fashionable in Holburne's day, as there was an enormous drive for new knowledge of the world and its inhabitants. Natural scientists were at the heart of the movement, learning from wider travel and from specimens collected from all over the discovered world.
The foundations of modern geology were still being laid in Holburne's time, by men like William Smith (1769-1839), who lived for a time in Bath while he helped John Rennie to lay out the Somerset Coal Canal, and Charles Lyall (1797-1875) whose writings had a great influence on Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and helped to spread Darwin's theory of evolution.
Sir William Holburne's interest in minerals may have begun during his naval career (1805-15), when the ships on which he served travelled to Spain, throughout the Mediterranean and in 1812 on the Brazilian station with Rear-Admiral de Courcy. More surely, his serious study may date from his extended visit to Italy in 1824-5, and the overland trip he made home through Austria, Germany, Belgium and Holland. The books in his library suggest a first flush of enthusiasm in the 1820s that gave way a little later to a taste for worked and polished stones, but he never seems to have lost his enthusiasm for raw minerals. His interest was undoubtedly linked to his taste for collecting ancient and more modern intaglios, cut on a variety of stones such as cornelian, chalcedony and agate.
The surviving collection of minerals runs to about 120 rock and mineral specimens, marbles, a few fossils and some 'oddities' – a shark's tooth, four dried sea-horses, some artificial bismuth crystals, and a piece of masonry from the famous Lisbon aqueduct, inscribed with the date May 6th 1826.
During a long period in store following Holburne's death many of the mineral specimens had become separated from their labels and some of the latter had been so affected by damp and acid that they were illegible. Deciphering the labels and trying to match them to the right specimens showed that the surviving collection is incomplete, and that it was put together over time and in a number of ways.
A few of the specimens were undoubtedly collected by Holburne himself as he travelled and walked. The majority he probably acquired from mineral dealers or was given as presents, including those from British mining districts and from the countries he visited in 1824-5. Many other countries are represented in the collection, and quite a number of the specimens are from classic localities like Freiberg in Saxony.
Holburne collected mineral specimens rather unsystematically, but he was clearly more than a 'dabbler'. He read himself into the subject, assembled examples from many sources, and described them accurately in the terms of his day. His collection of natural 'curiosities' is unusual among its kind in being dominated by minerals and rocks rather than the remains of animals and plants. There are, for instance, only a few fossils.
In addition to raw mineral specimens, Holburne also acquired polished minerals and other curiosities. These consist mainly of very decorative stones such as agates, lapis lazuli, malachite, cornelian and crystal. Some small stones are only polished on one side, demonstrating the contrast between their natural and finished state. Others are cut into thick oval shapes, as if prepared for working into intaglios in the classical tradition. A few are worked into shapes for knife handles and scent bottles, and some are cut into decorative shapes, ready for mounting as snuff boxes. A few have been cut, pieced together and mounted in silver to form brooches, possibly for his sisters. Other smaller pieces of lapis and agate may have been intended for jewellery.
Sir William also acquired a collection of nearly thirty agate and crystal bowls, some mounted in silver gilt and all on malachite bases, which were carefully catalogued by William Chaffers in the privately-printed catalogue of Holburne's collection in 1887. Most of these would have been purchased in London shops, having been imported from the German states and especially from Idar Oberstein in the Rhineland. The mining and production of decorative agates was established there in Roman times and flourished during the Renaissance period. However, the industry became threatened by diminishing local supplies until the later eighteenth and nineteenth century when regular and substantial imports of agate from Brazil began. By the nineteenth century various industrial methods were being used to enhance the colours and patterns of agates, particularly using iron ore to create rich red hues. One of the most significant pieces is a small, broken agate bowl of Roman date mounted in silver-gilt. There are also some rare small pieces of 17th century work and early 19th century Russian examples in Holburne's collection. Most of these were displayed in an ebonised display case on top of the mineral cabinet in Sir William Holburne's Study.
Finally, Sir William seems to have taken a great interest in decorative marbles, again probably stimulated by his travels in Italy in 1824-5. When he bought his house in Cavendish Crescent, Bath, and had it redecorated in 1829-30, it was fitted with expensive, new polished marble chimneypieces, and a search in the basement of this museum revealed a stack of marbles of many different types and colours, mainly Italian but also some British examples which were popular in the early nineteenth century. Many of these were used to provide small and highly decorative pedestals for his collection of classical and Italian Renaissance bronzes. A group of two-inch square specimens may have been intended to form a table surface in the fashionable taste of the period, but was not carried out.