The History of the Holburne Collection
Sir William Holburne and his Collection: Establishing taste: Sir William' s Grand Tour, 1824-5
In 1824, at the age of thirty-one, Sir William Holburne set out for an eighteen-month tour of Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Low Countries. He appears to have prepared himself well for his expedition, for his library contains many recent publications on travel, languages, scenery, geography and art, such as Hakewill’s Picturesque Tour of Italy of 1820 and the Rev. James’s Flemish, Dutch, German and Italian Schools of Painting of 1820-22.
Sir William seems to have travelled alone rather than with a tutor or permanent guide, and made sure that he was informed about public transport. His passport, or series of visas for the various Italian states through which he travelled, survives amongst his papers in the Museum (L631). It is an evocative document which reveals that he spent more time on two visits to Rome than elsewhere, but also visited Turin, Milan, Florence, Siena, Venice, Naples, possibly Sicily, and made a rapid tour into Istria before crossing the Alps for a fast return journey via Salzburg, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Mainz, down the Rhine to Antwerp before visiting Amsterdam, The Hague and Brussels.
A small sketch book containing Sir William's own attempts at Italian architectural studies and characters survives from the tour (AR82). A selection of trade cards from Rome and Florence show that Sir William visited or took an interest in mosaic-workers, picture dealers, booksellers, sculptors and founders (AR76). These fragmentary documents, and a sketch of him made in Milan in 1824 (A184) give a sense of a serious young man travelling alone and taking an increasingly intelligent and informed interest in everything about him. On his way back in 1825, a letter from Sir William's banker in London reached him in Brussels expressing his pleasure in learning that 'your travels had been accorded with so much satisfaction and that you enjoyed a good state of health'. The same letter also refers to the expected arrival in London of two cases sent by Holburne from Italy 'containing books and marble' – most of which are still in the collection. A case containing prints was also due to reach London, and it also appears that while travelling he acquired small 'tourist' items: 'antique' bronzes of dubious provenance, a curious Greek ewer supposedly discovered at Herculaneum in 1825 and Venetian mille-fiori glass trinkets for his sisters (X282).
The significance of Sir William’s tour in 1824-5 must have been enhanced by the ability of tourists to see so many works of art restored to Italian ownership following the French occupation of Italy and other states. That the tour profoundly influenced Holburne’s taste is undisputed. Reference to his European experiences can be traced in nearly every area of the collection he established in Bath from 1830 to the mid 1860s. The Italian travels are reflected in his acquisition of Italian seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings (A263) and bronzes (C904) classical and Renaissance cameos and intaglios (X302a, X427) and maiolica (C31). The time he spent in Switzerland in 1824, and his journey along the Rhine in 1825, may also have stimulated his considerable interest in mineralogy. Many of Sir William's specimens of raw and polished minerals, which survive in the museum with his hand-written labels, derived from the Alps and the German states through which he passed (X1619), together with an attractive group of mounted and unmounted agate bowls from Idar-Oberstein.
The final part of his journey may have also been the catalyst for his creation of one of the finest collections of small seventeenth-century Dutch paintings in the West Country of England in the nineteenth century (A51) and a small but remarkable collection of German and Dutch seventeenth-century silver of very high quality (S393).
Although his journey of 1824-5 contains the only substantially recorded evidence of Sir William as a first-hand observer of European art, fragmentary evidence in the archives points to further travelling. A letter from his banker Benjamin Adam in August 1827 to Sir William finds him 'pleasantly situated' at Neuville, near Dieppe, and anticipates his being joined by his mother and aunt. A tour to Scotland took place in 1828, for which his sketchbooks and journal survive in the museum (AR152a). A Table of Customs Duties 'for the information of Passengers passing to and from the Continent' of 1829 also survives. Bills from the Bath coach-makers Fuller and Co reveal the hire of a travelling coach for twelve weeks in the summer of 1837. In 1855 Sir William travelled with his three sisters through France, possibly to Bayonne to visit the Guards cemetery and memorial to which they contributed considerable sums in memory of their bother Francis. A number of 'modern' pieces of French porcelain in the collection which date from the 1850s may have been acquired during this journey.