The Pleasure Palace of Knowledge

On the death of her brother, an elderly spinster spent the last eight years of her life trying to secure a future for his vast collection. She had hoped that the collection would be located in the Sydney Hotel, but sadly this did not happen in her life time. The collection had been gathered by William or Thomas William Holburne, to be accurate, who came from a distinguished naval family. At the age of eleven he joined the navy and served on HMS Orion at the Battle of Trafalgar. On the death of his elder brother Francis in 1814 from a septic wound received at the Siege of Bayonne, he became heir to his father’s title, and left the navy.  When his father died in 1820 he became Sir William Holburne, the fifth Baronet of Menstrie, and embarked on the Grand Tour. This experience obviously sowed the seed for his life long passion for collecting. Over the years he was content to stay unmarried and devoted himself to collecting, with the death of his aunt Catherine Cussars, William and his siblings received a trust fund. He now had more resources  to purchase items from auctions and sales. When his family originally moved to Bath in 1802, they lived at No 7 Lansdown Place West, and were near neighbours of Sir William Beckford. Now Holburne was able to own some of Beckford’s collection when it was sold after his death in 1844. Some of Holburne’s collection featured in exhibitions in Leeds, London and Paris during his lifetime.

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7 Lansdown Place West

In 1829 William and his three unmarried sisters moved to 10 Cavendish Crescent. The ground and first floor rooms, 127.184 square metres of the house, became a backdrop for his pictures, porcelain, Wedgwood, Maiolica, silver, glass and Renaissance bronzes. It was Mary Anne Barbara, the only survivor of the four, who devoted her last years to carrying out his wish to provide Bath with its first art museum.

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10 Cavendish Crescent

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1871 Census showing William Holburne, his sisters and servants

In 1893, eleven years after her death, the collection was in its new home and on show to the public as the Holburne of Menstrie Museum. The Trustees purchased Bath Saving Bank on Charlotte Street, by auction for £2,400 in October 1890 by borrowing the money, and then sold Cavendish Crescent in January 1891 for £1,210. The collection was in a new location, but did not open to the public until 1893 due to financial difficulties.

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Old Bath Saving Bank, Charlotte Street

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Architect’s Drawings for the Museum on Charlotte Street

William Holburne had hoped that his collection would be the first art museum in Bath. But in 1900 the Victoria Art Gallery opened in a building adjoining the Guildhall. This gallery was possible because of a bequest left by Mrs Roxburgh to build an art gallery. It was presumed that Holburne’s collection would eventually be housed in the new gallery. Unfortunately the Trustees for Holburne’s sister were hostile to the suggestion, stating it was her bequest and nothing to do with the corporation. Holburne’s collection remained independent in its 163.788 square metres of space, and the new gallery became the home for the Council’s art collection and a public library.

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Victoria Art Gallery

In late 1904 the Trustees sought professional advice on the condition of the pictures, though relieved to find they needed little attention, unfortunately the report stated that they had the wrong attributions. A new curator was employed to rehang and produce a new catalogue for the collection. In present times this would not have been considered a catastrophe, artwork is consistently reassessed. The curator did not handle the situation in an acceptable manner, which ultimately lead to unfavourable publicity in the national newspapers. Though the attributions might have changed and the knowledge to assess them, the quality of the paintings had not. Not allowing this set back spoil the Trustees’s plans they moved forward and procured a new location for the collection.

The Trustees were right to wait because a large Georgian building with surrounding grounds became available, which was located in Bathwick. The Sydney Hotel was conceived by Thomas Baldwin in the early 1790s for his scheme which would include pleasure gardens in a hexagonal enclosure, based on the successful Vauxhall Gardens in London, and would have played an important part in the Bath season. This scheme was part of a larger plan that was the dream of William Pulteney who owned the Bathwick Estate. The original plan was designed by Adam and the first stage was to build Pulteney Bridge to connect Bathwick Estate with the City. (See “Gateway To A Scheme).

After Pulteney’s death his daughter favoured Thomas Baldwin to design a new layout for the estate. Baldwin was Bath City architect and surveyor, other than John Wood and his son, he has contributed more than any other architect to designing Bath.

Pulteney Bridge was a gateway to a new development on the Bathwick Estate situated to the east of the City. As the populous passed between the magnificent porticos (demolished), and crossed the bridge a magnificent vista stood before them. Passing down Argyle Street along Great Pulteney Street, all designed by Baldwin, its beautiful majestic terrace of houses with the prize at the end. The palatial Sydney House, as it was known, and the gardens, a place to see and be seen.

 Great Pulteney Street and the Holburne Museum 

His design was for the hotel to be two-storey, with single storey two bay wings on either side that were set back from the facade, including a Corinthian portico. Due to his bankruptcy as a result of the failure of the Bath Bank, curtailing several building projects in the city, his design was not used and instead a three-storey design by Charles Harcourt Masters was completed in 1799. This became the entrance to the pleasure gardens, known as Bath Vauxhall Gardens. Harcourt Masters’ design originally included a loggia, an open colonnade with three bays on either side. The bays were eventually replaced by a blind rusticated wall. At the rear of the building was a conservatory protruding from the 1st floor with three large windows. The central window allowed access to the bandstand, which was a semicircular attachment open to the elements surrounded by an iron balcony. The conservatory and bandstand were supported on Corinthian columns. As visitors passed through the archway into the gardens there were two crescents of open supper boxes. The building had card rooms, provided tea and coffee for the visitors, with a ballroom on the first floor. In the basement was a public house, allowing the visitors’ servants, coachmen and chairmen a place for refreshments. In 1836 John Pinch the younger undertook alterations to the hotel and an attic-storey was added. With the Great Western Railway line bisecting the pleasure gardens and the hotel becoming a college, with several structures constructed around the hotel, such as a gymnasium, the pleasure gardens were not as grand and Bath’s status as a health resort was also in decline.

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Plan of Sydney Gardens with Railway Line

Miss Holburne became aware that Sydney College was for sale. Unfortunately she delayed drafting a codicil for her will and died three days later on 21 June 1882, her Trustees were unable to act as all the documents had not been completed.

Eventually in the late 1880s the college closed and proposals were put forward to enlarge the building into a new hotel. Interestingly the Holburne Trustees had tried to procure the building from the Sydney Gardens Company for £1250. In April 1888 the Trustees wrote directly to the Duke of Cleveland who owned the land freehold, in the hope of lifting the restrictive covenants. “… with the consent of your Grace and therefore our purchase from the Sydney Gardens Company has been made conditional on your Grace permitting it to be used as a museum.” They were unsuccessful, losing out to a proposed hotel project, which also proved to be unsuccessful in 1896, as there were hotels under construction in the centre of Bath.

In 1906 a distant cousin of Miss Holburne died and her money from the family trust fund was able to boost the Holburne Charity’s funds. After loans and debts were settled the collection was in a better financial position.

After the college vacated in the late 1880s the building was empty and became dilapidated. The City Corporation acquired the Gardens in 1910 and the building and two acres of land were sold for £2,650 to the Holburne Trustees in 1912. The Trustees had commissioned Reginald Blomfield in 1910, before the purchase, to work on plans for the transformation into a museum. Blomfield was a very distinguished architect, historian and garden designer. He was President of RIBA (1912-14), and his large practice undertook private and commercial work. He came to the project with nearly twenty years of experience in building large country houses and renovating and extending existing ones. His initial designs were very grand with a large dome and included landscaping the garden.

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Reginald Blomfield’s 1913 Design with a Grand Dome

Unfortunately the Trustees had a maximum allowable expenditure of £10,000, therefore new designs were provided excluding the gardens and the grand dome. It is interesting that Charles Harcourt Masters’ finished design for the Sydney Hotel was very similar to Thomas Baldwin’s Guildhall. If Blomfield’s design had been accepted it would have bared more than a passing resemblance.

Bath Guildhall Designed by Thomas Baldwin 

Blomfield gutted the interior in order to provide gallery space. The first floor was enlarged by removing the ceiling and creating an impressive museum space by combining the two floor.

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Plan for the Museum Gallery on the Taller First Floor

Pinch’s attic storey now became the second floor picture gallery. The central windows were removed as the new second floor gallery was now lit by three roof lights, instead of the dome.

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Plan for the new Second Floor Picture Gallery

The ground floor space was divided up into accommodation and administration space. The Curator had a bedroom and bathroom at the rear of the building. The caretaker and his wife were at the front of the building with a kitchen and sitting room. The caretaker’s wife cooked for all residents. The Trustees used the committee room for their meetings.

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Plan of the Ground Floor

At the rear of the building a new open stone staircase rising full height through the building, was designed to take visitors to the galleries on the first and second floors. The metal rail and balustrade was topped by urns without flames.

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A Cross Section of the Building showing Staircase 

Various Views of the Staircase 

By greatly altering the layout of the internal space, he was able to improve exterior appearance. He removed the row of five small square windows below the cornice. These were replaced with framed oval medallions with husk drops for the middle and two outer bays, and square tablets with feet and gutter for the others. The side wings were replaced with a colonnade of Doric columns and a balustraded parapet and flaming urns echoing the roof line. The roof line now included a central decorative piece of blind balustrades and together with the roof corners, they were topped with flaming urns.

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Blomfield’s 1914 Design for the Front Elevation

Blomfield removed the semicircular conservatory and bandstand from the rear of the building. It was replaced by a slightly protruding section with tripartite windows to the first and second floors. The rear exit through the building to the garden was blocked, the property was now a museum rather than an entrance to the pleasure gardens.

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Blomfield’s 1914 Design for Rear Elevation

In 1916 the museum opened to the public, it was the new home of William’s collection of 4,000 items, in 298.126 square metres of gallery space.

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The Front Elevation

The museum closed towards the end of 2008 for major redevelopment work, the reopening in 2011 saw the conclusion to the hard fought battle for Eric Parry’s controversial extension.

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View of Extension from Sydney Gardens

An ultra modern design to be connected to a Grade 1 listed Georgian building. The purpose of the extension was to reunite the building with the park, something people had enjoyed doing in the eighteenth century. The supper boxes of the original Sydney Hotel have now been reincarnated as a cafe, that in fine weather spills out into the gardens.

View of and from the Cafe

As well as including a cafe, education facilities and restoring access to the gardens it extended the exhibition space. Prior to the building of the extension only 40% of the exhibits were on show, the space has now allowed the opportunity for the public to see more of the collection.

William Holburne’s Collection in the Extension Gallery

The extension is not built with the sacred honey coloured Bath stone, but with layers of glass and moulded mottled distressed dark green ceramic.

View of the Mottled Distressed Dark Green Ceramic Cladding

The facade according to RIBA “creates a sophisticated play of shadows, light and reflection – beautiful and unique, …” The design is inspired from the outside the glass reflects the trees, and the ceramic emulates the trees, from the inside the view is the trees through the glass.

The Trees Reflected in the Glass

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

Author: heritagehistorian

I am a historian, writer and editor. I spend my time researching architectural history, people and places.

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