Situated at the end of the magnificent Great Pulteney Street, stands an impressive Palladian building – The Holburne of Menstrie Museum and the Holburne Museum of Art. Voted this year (2016) as one of the Top 10 Wonderful Museums in the UK by Britain Magazine, it is one of the treasures of Bath’s many Museums and Art Galleries.
Originally the building was designed as a “Hotel” where visitors to the pleasure grounds of Sydney Gardens behind the building would be entertained and could dine, both at breakfast time, for afternoon tea and in the evenings. It was built in 1796 to designs by Charles Harcourt Masters and opened to the public in 1799. In 1836 the Hotel became private lodgings and an extra storey was added for bedrooms.
Many visitors assume that this was the home of Sir Thomas William Holburne of Menstrie (otherwise known as Sir William) who gave his name, and his collection, to this Museum and Art Gallery. Alas not. The Museum opened many years after his death in 1874.
Sir William (born in 1793) was an avid and passionate collector. He lived in Bath at Cavendish Crescent from 1830, along with his 3 unmarried sisters. It was here at No 10 Cavendish Crescent that he housed his vast collection – packing the building from top to basement with silver, miniatures, furniture, majolica ware, bronzes and more. Restricted by the size of the premises Sir William tended to purchase small items, but all were of great quality – Roman glass, gemstones and even Old Master paintings.
After his death his sister, Mary Anne Barbara Holburne bequeathed on her passing (in 1882) the 4,000 items that Sir William had amassed over his lifetime to the people of Bath. A suitable site was sought for the collection, and although Mary had in her lifetime coveted the old Sydney Hotel site as a suitable location for her brothers belongings it was many years of legal wrangling before this was made possible. In the meantime a temporary space opened up housing the collection in 1893 on Charlotte Street.
In 1916, finally, after 34 years since its bequest, Sir William’s collection was put on display in the old Sydney Hotel, today now known as the Holburne Museum or simply, and affectionately, the “Holburne”. One hundred years later it is as popular as ever with visitors and locals alike.
Over the passing years since the doors to the permanent display were opened, bequests and acquisitions have swelled the collections, including additional paintings by Gainsborough, Stubbs and Turner.
Today the Museum continues to be free to all who visit. Over the floors one can immerse oneself in the splendor of Sir William’s lifetimes work, plus learn more about the man himself. You can even view his passport which shows the variety of journeys he made around Europe in pursuit of his passion.
Within the galleries you can walk amongst great works of art and admire beautiful objects. The Museum also has an exhibition space and charges only a small fee for its annual exhibitions. Currently on (until June 5th) is an Impressionist Exhibition that examines the work of the early Impressionist artists of 1874 including Degas, Renoir and Pissarro. From June 25th – October 2nd 2016 there will be an exposition on the painter Stubbs and his fascination with painting wild animals.
There are plenty of activities for families, children and adults alike throughout the year, plus you can attend workshops, lectures and musical performances here too. And if it has always been your dream venue, you can even get married here! What a backdrop to your special day.
After a few hours spent looking at the collection you can rest with a cup of coffee and delicious piece of cake in the light and airy cafe that is housed in the newest addition to the Museum. In 2008 the Holburne closed for 3 years whilst a very modern extension was added. Rather controversial at the time, the glass and ceramic structure by Eric Parry now seems to lend itself to the green of the gardens it backs on to.
The Holburne is located only a 15-20 minute walk from The Royal Hotel and is perfect for a visit whether rain or shine. Take a look at their website for upcoming activity days, talks and more; plus pop in not only for the cafe but to browse the bookshop on site.
If you fancy staying in the heart of Bath to enjoy the wonders of the Holburne Museum, you can do so from as little as £99.00 per room per night with English Breakfast. Spa Breaks and other offers are available online or call us on 01225 463134.
To learn more about Sir William take a look at an article the author wrote recently for The Bath Magazine.
The Holburne Museum is open daily, Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm, Sunday and Bank Holidays 11am to 5pm. Closed 24-26 December and 1 January.
(Photographs copyright (c) The Holburne Museum, Catherine Pitt and Simon Buckley)