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The museum that keeps Bath buzzing

Seriousness combines with pleasure at the Holburne Museum, says director Jennifer Scott, as the museum celebrates the centenary of its move to the former Sydney Hotel in Bath

13 June 2016

How are the founding principles of the Holburne Museum reflected at the museum today?

The museum was originally founded in 1882 as a collection for the people of Bath, and the whole focus of the bequest was on care of the collection, research into it, and its accessibility – and those things are exactly what we focus on today. Our vision is about changing lives through art; if [founding collector] William Holburne [1793–1874] were to be able to visit the museum today, I hope he’d be really pleased with that.

And what would he think of the collection?

I think he’d be astounded at how it’s grown. I often imagine him walking up Great Pulteney Street and seeing the Holburne Museum with his name – the museum moved to its current location in the former Sydney Hotel in 1916 – and wondering whether it was really dedicated to him. But however much the actual collection has grown, it’s still in keeping with his original taste.

Holburne had quite a quirky taste – clearly formed on the Grand Tour, and we have his passport at the museum – with a very human side to it. We’ve looked to grow the collection in line with that. A few years ago we acquired a bead basket, which has portraits of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, and is a very unusual object.

Beadwork basket (c. 1660–70), English, the Holburne Museum, Bath

Beadwork basket (c. 1660–70), English, the Holburne Museum, Bath

In the past year, we’ve been able to acquire Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Arthur Atherley – the first Lawrence oil painting in the collection – which is another step towards us becoming the centre of excellence for 18th-century British portraiture [Fig. 1]. This is very important for our academic status but, since the sitter was on the cusp of leaving school, we’re also using the painting as part of an outreach project for school leavers in the city.

(1791), Sir Thomas Lawrence, the Holburne Museum, Bath

Arthur Atherley (1772–1844) (1791), Sir Thomas Lawrence, the Holburne Museum, Bath

This year marks the centenary of the museum’s move to the building in Sydney Gardens. Why does it feel so important to celebrate this?

Our national profile has been growing steadily, and now, five years on from the opening of [architect] Eric Parry’s transformative extension, we have a real opportunity to celebrate 100 years of being in this key location in the city. In the 18th century, the Sydney Hotel was the gateway through to Bath’s pleasure gardens, and I think that history and its legacy give the museum a very special atmosphere – Parry managed to capture that buzz, while being sympathetic to the existing 18th-century architecture. You have to walk up the grandest boulevard in Europe to reach the Holburne Museum, and when you’re there, you sense Bath’s past as a great European city of pleasure.

Is that reflected in the displays?

I think so. They aren’t academically disconnected from real life but are embedded in human experience and the history of taste. Our Collection Gallery has vases hanging from the ceiling and it’s crowded with art, echoing how objects would have appeared in William Holburne’s very small house in Bath. Other spaces have a very different feel: the gallery of Dutch cabinet paintings evokes an Amsterdam 17th-century townhouse, and then upstairs the museum really opens up with the grand Picture Gallery.

The Collection Gallery.

The Collection Gallery. Courtesy the Holburne Museum

The Picture Gallery

The Picture Gallery. Courtesy the Holburne Museum

Eric Parry’s plans were initially opposed by local conservation groups. Five years on, has the building bedded in?

Absolutely. I have so much respect for [former director] Alexander Sturgis and [former chairman] David Posnett, who worked tirelessly to make it happen. It has positioned the Holburne as a leader not only in art, but also in contemporary architecture in the city. Aspects of the building that probably first seemed very avant-garde – the ceramic tiles and fins on the back of the extension – blend so well with the park beyond, and also evoke the palette of the Gainsborough paintings in the collection.

The Holburne Museum extension, designed by Eric Parry and opened in 2011.

The Holburne Museum extension, designed by Eric Parry and opened in 2011. Courtesy the Holburne Museum

Is there potential to expand still further?

The important thing is not to go backwards. For the next three to five years, the focus will be on doubling our endowment, which will allow us to keep our charitable objectives going – including the curatorial work we do, and learning and community-engagement projects.

And presumably scholarly projects, too?

That’s right. We’re a university museum and work in partnership with the University of Bath and with Bath Spa University – the latter has sponsored our current ‘Impressionism: Capturing Life’ exhibition [until 5 June]. The collection isn’t as well known by researchers as it could be. There’s plenty of work to do here on the history of collecting, for instance – and about where William Holburne acquired his collection. His Dutch and Flemish paintings are also very interesting, not least because they match up with George IV’s collecting during the same period.

And you now have a major Stubbs exhibition opening?

Yes, ‘Stubbs and the Wild’ [25 June–2 October]. We want to take a subject that might seem quite conservative, but find an angle that slightly challenges people’s preconceptions of the painter. So the exhibition will counter the idea of Stubbs as a really genteel artist, and instead examine him as a painter who took over an abattoir, and was doing dissections of horses better to understand their anatomy. We’re going to present another side of an Enlightenment artist.

You spent more than a decade as a curator at the Royal Collection Trust before taking up this directorial role in 2014. How challenging has the transition been?

I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. I can’t imagine a better collection to work with than the Royal Collection, operating across multiple sites including Holyrood, Windsor, and Buckingham Palace. The team there think a lot about visitor experiences at the different venues, and I’ve enjoyed distilling all that experience into a single museum. I still have time to curate: there’s a mucking-in attitude at the Holburne, and all the staff are really engaged in working together to make something bigger and better.

More information on the Holburne Museum is available here

From the June issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

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