The History of the Holburne Collection
Sir William Holburne and his Collection: Arranging the Collection: Sir William at Home
Sir William Holburne's collection was contained in an elegant, but not capacious, town house. In 1830, following his mother’s death, Holburne and his three spinster sisters bought, decorated and furnished a nearly-new house in the classical style in Cavendish Crescent, Bath (see photograph). There they were to remain for the rest of their lives. None of them married. Accounts from the Bath stonemasons Reeves and Son show that the hitherto unfurnished house was fitted with Italian marble chimneypieces – Porto Venere and Bardiglio Fiorito in the ground floor dining room and study, white statuary marble in the first floor drawing rooms. The leading Bath interior decorator John Stafford provided crimson damask curtains, gold wallpaper and grained woodwork for the double drawing rooms. Sir William commissioned modern silver-gilt plate and flatware in the fashionable Rococo Revival taste for stylish entertaining in his new home.
The inventory of 10 Cavendish Cresecent, taken following Sir William’s death in 1874, establishes exactly how his collection was displayed and the relative importance of the pieces according to his judgement (AR153).
Although the house was handsome and generous in its size, it only contained four significant rooms and a fine staircase for the display of works of art. On the ground floor was the Entrance Hall, Dining Room and Study/Library and on the first floor the Front and Back Drawing Rooms. This constraint of space may have influenced Sir William’s purchases. Many of them tend to be small in scale. There are a number of larger paintings, many of which hung on the staircase (A2, A42), but by far the greater number of paintings were of medium to small size: sixty-one paintings hung in the Front Drawing Room (A95, A135), forty-six paintings were in the Back Drawing Room (A58), fifty-four in the Dining Room (A70, A69) and fifty paintings, including many fine Dutch genre scenes and landscapes hung in Sir William's Study/Library (A51, A86). He possessed a few large portraits but, without substantial space for a gallery, he appears to have concentrated on establishing a impressive collection of portrait miniatures that were contained in four cases in the Staircase and first floor Landing. Instead of acquiring or commissioning full-size marble sculptures, Sir William established a 'miniature' sculpture gallery of antique and renaissance bronzes in his ground-floor Study/Library (C899). Also in the Study was Sir William's collection of natural and polished minerals and hardstones (X1625, C918). His appreciation of Italian Renaissance painting was represented less on canvas than in his collection of maiolica which filled the Entrance Hall and first floor Landing (C1, C31).
Sir William collected very little antique furniture apart from a fine seventeenth century Antwerp ebony and tortoisehell cabinet which stood in his hall (a statement in itself of the owner’s antiquarian interests), two interesting pieces of largely seventeenth-century marquetry furniture (F16) and a curious set of late seventeenth-century English cane-back chairs. The lack of eighteenth-century French or English Rococo cabinet-work in Sir William’s collection is interesting when judged alongside his obvious taste for the style in silver and ceramics, and the availability of such pieces in the London salerooms in the 1830s and 1840s. Nor did Sir William collect antique tapestries, carpets or textiles of any sort. Again, the constraints of space in a town house, rather than a lack of interest in such objects, may well have limited his ability to collect and display cabinet work and larger textiles.
One of the most impressive parts of Sir William's collection must have been the ever-growing collection of porcelain, arranged in crowded and eclectic displays on every surface of the first-floor drawing rooms of Cavendish Crescent. Sir William seems to have been a passionate and generally accurate purchaser of eighteenth-century Chinese, German, French and English porcelain. The small size, delicacy, complex design and decoration and technical mastery of material enabled Sir William to display his interest and expertise in porcelain in hundreds of individual items in a relatively small space. His finest pieces of Meissen and Chelsea porcelain were displayed in the Front Drawing Room (C222, C226) with lesser pieces in the Back Drawing Room. Sir William's remarkable collection of Wedgwood medallions and plaques was housed in a rosewood collector's cabinet in the Front Drawing Room, while his Wedgwood vases were kept in his second-floor bedroom (1625, C371.42, C317). In total, by the end of his life, his ceramic collection amounted to approximately thirteen hundred pieces, nearly all of which were on display in three rooms that were in constant domestic use.
Sir William's collection of silver was inventoried separately in 1874 when it was listed in five plate chests (AR68). These were probably stored in the Plate Room, the key for which survives in the collection. The majority of the pieces were probably used on the dining table and displayed on the sideboards in the ground floor Dining Room when Sir William was in residence (S183, S389). Again, the collection of silver consists of hundreds of smaller items rather than large ceremonial objects, possibly reflecting Sir William's capacity to display them in the town house, as well as his taste for highly decorative, intricate silver and gilt pieces. The collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century spoons is a particular example of his preference for small-scale works of art (S203).
The careful examination of the 1874 inventories therefore reveals how Sir William Holburne responded in his collecting and display to the circumstances of his family and his own life. There is no surviving evidence at all of a wish to move into larger accommodation as his collection grew. Instead, the reader gains the impression of the rooms of Cavendish Crescent becoming almost claustrophobically crowded with small pictures, tiny tables and showcases and minute objects arranged on and in them in an eclectic way. Most regrettably, there are no surviving photographs of the interiors which would give an even more accurate and evocative idea of the collection in its original setting.