Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Holburne Museum in Bath

The Holburne Museum, Bath
The wonderful Holburne Museum sits at the end of Great Pulteney Street, Bath, nestled among the trees and landscape of Sydney Gardens and almost opposite Jane Austen's house at 4, Sydney Place. It houses a beautiful collection of paintings, ceramics, furniture, glass and other treasures which are a delight to study.
The heart of the present day Collection was formed by Sir Thomas William Holburne (1793-1874). As a second son, Thomas William (generally known as William) first pursued a naval career. He ultimately inherited the Baronetcy in 1820 following the death of his elder brother, Francis, at the Battle of Bayonne in 1814.

From 1830, Sir William lived at 10 Cavendish Crescent in Bath with his three unmarried sisters. We don’t know much detail of the circumstances and pattern of Sir William's collecting, but to some inherited family treasures (Chinese armorial porcelain, silver and portraits) he added seventeenth- and eighteenth-century silver and porcelain, Italian maiolica and bronzes, old master paintings, portrait miniatures, books and furniture and a variety of other smaller items including Roman glass, coins, enamels, seals, gems and snuff boxes. All of these give the Collection its unique character.

In 1882 this collection of over 4,000 objects, pictures and books was bequeathed to the people of Bath by Holburne’s sister, Mary Anne Barbara Holburne (1802-1882). From the start, it was intended to form “the nucleus of a Museum of Art for the city of Bath”. Since the Museum opened to the public in 1893, a further 2,500 objects have been acquired. Some of the growth has consisted in filling gaps in the collection: the furniture, for instance, is almost entirely a post-Holburne addition. Holburne Museum Website.

In my new book, Searching for Captain Wentworth, one of my heroes, Josh, is a curator of a special exhibition on Georgian Bathwick at the museum. In this scene, Josh and my heroine Sophie finally bump into one another for a proper introduction. Although they are living in the same house in separate flats, they've never quite managed it though it soon becomes obvious to Josh that he might just have seen his neighbour before.

‘Can I help you?’ he asked, looking at me so searchingly with his dark eyes that I found it difficult to maintain eye contact.
‘Oh, I know you,’ he said, just seconds later before I could answer, as his expression changed to one of smiling recognition.
‘You’re the girl from the Pump Room. Are you living here? I’ve been hearing the occasional footsteps upstairs, and Lara at the pub said someone had moved in.’
I managed to nod my head, but I was blushing more furiously than ever and feeling the heat on my cheeks like a furnace blast from an open oven door.
‘I’m Josh Strafford,’ he said, ‘your neighbour from the downstairs flat. This is such a coincidence, don’t you think?’
‘Sophie Elliot,’ I said, holding out my hand, and then regretting it instantly because it seemed so silly and formal to be shaking hands. But he didn’t shake my hand. He took it and kissed it like some Regency suitor in a romantic novel.
Catherine Cussons by John Hoppner

‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Elliot,’ he said, with a mock bow and in a very serious voice, obviously thinking I was a complete noodle to be behaving so ceremoniously.
I giggled because he looked so solemn, but it did break the ice.
‘That name has a most familiar ring. Are you related to the family that own the house?’ he asked in such a direct way that I was taken aback.
I nodded again, a little hesitantly this time, wondering why he wanted to know.
‘It’s just that I’ve found some of the Elliot family whilst doing some research. I’m over at the museum across the road, temporarily, putting together an exhibition celebrating Georgian Bathwick and its inhabitants. I’ve got lists of people who were in the area at the time and I was interested to find out who was living in the house during the early eighteen hundreds.’
I nodded. ‘I’m the great-niece of the lady who still owns the house which has been in the family since it was first built.’
‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ said Josh, who looked genuinely impressed. ‘The family had a manor house, I believe … Monkford Hall in Somerset.’
‘The family seat,’ I said, smiling at his round-eyed expression.
‘We don’t have it anymore. To my knowledge it passed out of the family after the First World War. They’d lost all their money by then and after the war there was nothing to be done, but sell it.’
Josh looked genuinely disappointed. ‘Oh, that’s a real shame.’
‘Yes, I know, but I imagine great houses must be such a financial drain and always cold. I couldn’t imagine living in one, could you?’

Josh didn’t speak, so to cover the awkward pause I just carried on talking. ‘My mother always kept an old print that gives an idea of what it must have looked like in its heyday. I understand it’s still a private house. I always think it was a shame that she never got to see it again, or have another look inside. Mum died some years ago so she’ll never see it now.’
‘Oh, that’s so sad,’ he said.
As I looked up at him wondering why I was telling this virtual stranger about every aspect of my family history, the thought then struck me that there was a very remote chance that I might be able to visit the house, though I seemed to recall that the Elliots I’d met in the past were to be in Bath for some time and not about to travel. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if I could go back to visit Monkford Hall and walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. I suddenly realized that Josh was staring at me. ‘I haven’t upset you by talking about your family, I hope.’
He must think I’m not all there in the head, I thought, as I became conscious that I’d been standing mute with a faraway expression on my face for longer than I should.
‘No, not at all.’ I felt so embarrassed I picked up the painting in an effort to disguise my flame-red cheeks. ‘I was just going out. It’s really nice to meet you, properly. Of course, I know we met before and everything, but …’
Pricilla Jones by Thomas Barker

There didn’t seem to be anything else to add and what I’d managed to say hadn’t come out at all the way I’d wanted it to. I moved forward and then the agony was prolonged a bit further by the fact that we both went the same way and did that sort of dancing thing where you can’t quite get past each other. The hallway wasn’t very wide as it was and it was getting very ridiculous as we hopped about, until Josh put his hands on my shoulders steering me towards the door. I mumbled my thanks and opened it without looking back. Call me paranoid but I was sure he was watching me as I marched away, cheeks on fire. I didn’t hear the door shut straight away and I could just picture him with a puzzled expression, making a mental note to avoid me at all costs in the future.

To listen to some audio excerpts of Searching for Captain Wentworth click here and to read more about the book click here.

The Holburne Museum always has some fascinating exhibitions on and for anyone with an interest in Georgian art and artefacts it's a must-see destination on a visit to Bath.
Jane Odiwe
A view of Sydney Gardens from the museum


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

The Holburne Museum looks simply wonderful, Jane. I've never visited it and I must. It will go to the top of my list the next time I go to Bath.

I was interested in the portrait of Priscilla Jones. There's a lovely portrait of her by her fiance, the painter Thomas Jones, who makes her much prettier!

Christina said...

A very interesting post, Jane - I must remember to visit the museum next time I go to Bath!

Jane Odiwe said...

Elizabeth, it is a wonderful museum-so many small yet beautiful things!
Thank you, Christina-yes, you must go, it's well worth a visit!

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George said...

The museums looks beautiful. I've never visit there but I've heard lots of beautiful stories regarding with this museum. I think I must pay some visit there since I am very much interested to see the beautiful collections in the museum especially the furniture. I am actually very fond with furniture.

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