Bath’s First Art Museum

In 1893 a museum of fine art for Bath opened its doors to the public in the old Bath Savings Bank building in Charlotte Street. This was the legacy of Sir Thomas William Holburne, 5th Baronet of Menstrie in Scotland, and today it continues to go from strength to strength.

The museum was re-housed in 1916 to the refurbished Georgian style Sydney Hotel at the head of Great Pulteney Street. In 2011 a glass and ceramic extension was added to the back of this grand building allowing more accessible displays to show a wider selection of William’s eclectic collection. This has been enhanced over the years with the acquisition of additional paintings and decorative arts. Temporary exhibitions including names such as George Stubbs, Canaletto and Bruegel continue to reflect the core collection, along with contemporary artists representing today’s crafts such as 3D printing, modern silverware and ceramics.

Born in 1793,William was sent to the Royal Navy as an 11 year old boy and fought in the Battle of Trafalgar. Following the loss of his much loved elder brother, he inherited the family wealth after the death of his father in 1820. He then left the navy and after completing The Grand Tour, William lived in Cavendish Crescent with his three sisters, surrounded by his growing collection. Every inch of available wall space would have been adorned with his favourite Dutch paintings and those of contemporary, local artists of the time such as Thomas Barker, beautiful occasional tables hidden beneath fragile pieces of porcelain, his study full of his miniatures, bronzes, spoons and mineral collection plus over 1,000 books – perhaps not the most conducive arrangement for harmonious family living!

He became quite a connoisseur, earning a reputation for being a collector of distinction, loaning to national exhibitions through the 1860s, becoming elected to the Burlington Fine Arts Club, and purchasing from well know local resident William Beckford. Neither William Holburne nor any of his sisters married and therefore he agreed with his younger sister, Mary Anne Barbara, that on his death his lifetime’s collection should be retained as a museum of fine art for the people of Bath to enjoy.

Mary Anne Barbara was determined that his legacy should take on the family name in perpetuity but, due to complicated legalities and the search for a suitable venue, it was 11 years after her own death that the Holburne of Menstrie Museum was eventually completed. The original bank building afforded very limited space, with restricted opening hours, but the first year attracted over 5,000 visitors. Unfortunately this dwindled to half over the following years and it was agreed by the appointed Trustees that a larger home was needed for the collection.

The empty building of the Sydney Hotel, previously a thriving 18th century social venue linking the buzzing city of Bath with magical pleasure gardens behind, had long been viewed by Mary Anne Barbara as the perfect setting for the Holburne collection, and in 1906 a bequest from a wealthy aunt enabled funds to be available for its restoration. However, much legal and political wrangling delayed its purchase. The project undertaken by architect Reginald Blomfield to completely gut the inside and enhance the exterior with touches of French design was not finalised until 1916 when the Holburne Museum’s refurbished home finally opened its doors again to the public.

In over 125 years since its inception, the museum has grown from a small, cramped collection of treasures to a nationally recognised, modern museum, moving with the times to ensure that everyone from young children to knowledgeable historians can enjoy the stories it has to tell. The more recent refurbishment in 2011 by architect Eric Parry again opened the wonderful vista between Sydney gardens and the city centre. Visitors can enjoy a leisurely coffee or lunch in the café just as William might have done at the Sydney Hotel, little knowing that his prized possessions would still be on display and his family legacy would continue to change lives through art all these years later.

Jackie Brown