The History of the Holburne Collection
Sir William Holburne and his Collection: Building the Collection
Sir William Holburne’s art collection remains almost completely intact, but the documentary evidence about his acquisitions is extremely fragmentary. Virtually no journals or diaries survive to permit any chronological account of his activity. Only a few letters and accounts exist which give the reader insight into his character (AR77).
Sir William purchased several items from the posthumous sale of his aunt's effects in 1834 (AR134, A11). He is known to have acquired some of his finest pieces at auction or shortly thereafter in the 1840s and 1850s, from the Duke of York (M43, S5), Duke of Sussex (L114b, S203), Beckford (L114a, C416.2), Montferrand (L627, C1, C31), Poniatowski (X389) and Northwick collections (L115, C904, S3). However, few bills or correspondence have yet come to light which detail when, how and where he collected over five thousand paintings, sculptures, gems, ceramics, pieces of historic silver and other works of art. Surviving documents indicate that Holburne was a meticulous man, but keeping detailed records of the purchsing of works of art and curiosities was not a general habit in the nineteenth century.
In several cases the provenances of objects as stated by Sir William have proved impossible to verify: one example is the portrait, said to be of Lord Nugent, that Sir William claimed came from the collection of Horace Walpole (A64). However, re-examination of those documents which do survive in the Museum’s archive, and re-assesssment of the collection itself is re-establishing Sir William’s reputation as a significant figure in the history of nineteenth-century British collecting. Although he is not quite their equal, he may be compared with his fellow resident and collector in Bath in the early nineteenth century, William Beckford (1760-1844), and other contemporaries such as the Reverend John Sanford (1777-1855), the substantial residue of whose collection of Italian art survives at Corsham Court, Wiltshire. Nor was he on a par with the 3rd and 4th Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, John and Josephine Bowes or the first Viscount Leverhulme, but this does not belittle his significance.
Sir William's taste in collecting reflected that of his generation. He admired Old Master paintings, particularly those of the Dutch seventeenth century schools (A86). Holburne also enjoyed Flemish genre (A51) as well as evocative classically-inspired landscapes by northern European artists who visited Italy. His taste in decorative art reveals his preference for richly decorated objects, in silver, silver-gilt and porcelain, but his interest ranged from the finest works of the Italian Renaissance to Rococo Chinoiserie, neoclassical purity and the antiquarian Romanticism of his own generation.
It is in Sir William's examples of English decorative art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the collection is perhaps most distinctive. It includes some extremely rare, early seventeenth century examples of English domestic silver, including a most remarkable collections of spoons, many of which were made in the West Country (S203). Like many collectors of the period 1830-1860, he developed a particular taste for the lavish and highly decorative Rococo style of the mid-eighteenth century and this was also reflected in his collection of early English porcelain (C222). A stark and intriguing contrast lies in his collection of Wedgwood Black Basalts and Jasperware in a strictly neo-classical taste (C371.42).