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.

A Meeting of Minds

The Piazza di Spagna has been the location of the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican City since the 17th century. It was also the residential location for foreign visitors from the 17th to the 19th century. Tobias Smolett , the well known 18th century writer and surgeon, wrote a book about his experiences of travelling in France and Italy. This 1766 book describes the history and social life of the places he visited, giving his own opinion about diet and morals, and guiding future travellers on how to conduct themselves. He declared that “Here most of the English reside”.

But it was not only the English, other nations were represented too and were drawn to the area; artists, writers and musicians frequented the Piazza and the nearby streets. The meeting place for some of the most talented and influential people of their times. Franz Liszt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Henrik Ibsen, Honore de Balzac, Hans Christian Andersen, Felix Mendelssohn, Henry James, as well as Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Robert Browning, to name but a few.

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The Piazza di Spagna “Here most of the English reside” Smolett

The Piazza is famous for the Scalinata di Trinita Dei Monti, know as the Spanish Steps, which were built between 1723 to 1726, to connect the Santissima Trinita dei Monti with the Piazza. Charles VIII of France purchased land in order to found a convent for the French order of San Francesco di Paola. He also provided money to build a church the Santissima Trinita dei Monti. Approval was given by Pope Alessandro VI and construction started in 1502 using stone from Narbonne in France. The Gothic church’s towers were not built until 1580-87 when, by then, the style was out of favour. The church’s design can not be attributed to any one architect.

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Santissima Trinità dei Monti and Third Century Obelisk

Plans to build the steps date back to the 1580s when the church was built. The plans did not proceed due to a lack of funds. It was not until 1660 when money was left to the church for the project, by a French diplomat Etienne Gueffier who had left the money in his will for the sole purpose. Mazarin, Louis XIV’s Cardinal, took over the project but unfortunately it stalled again due to Gueffier’s nephew contesting the will; and Pope Alessandro VIII taking exception to the idea of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV as part of the design. Sixty six years later the steps were finally completed. The 135 Baroque style steps  were designed by the Italian architect Francesco De Sanctis, who was favoured by the French. There were diplomatic negotiations between the Vatican and French officials to make sure the completed work represented both nations.

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Keats-Shelly Museum viewed from Spanish Steps

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Keats-Shelley Museum viewed from front with original shop front with flour-de-lis symbol above

At the base of the steps, the buildings on either side were designed by Francesco de Sanctis and constructed by the French. The Casino Rossa on the right of the steps was designed as a purpose built shop with accommodation above. It is now the Keats-Shelley Museum, but was originally a boarding house where John Keats lived for three months before he died on 23rd February 1821. John Keats originally studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital registering in October 1815, and became a licensed apothecary in 1816. He was promoted to a Dresser allowing him to dress wounds, set bones and assist with surgery. In July he passed the examinations to become a surgeon and took a summer break in Margate. Keats’ first love had been literature and though he continued to write poetry, his medical studies were taking up to much of his time.  After spending his summer holiday writing, he returned to London and on the 31st October at the age of 21 he began practicing as a surgeon. In December 1816 his sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer was published in The Examiner, it was the turning point, he was disillusioned with medicine and now he could justify a change of career. Sometime after this period Keats started to take mercury for an unspecified illness, possibly veneral disease, though he was well aware how dangerous this medication was, by the summer of 1818 he was already showing signs of mercury poisoning. Towards the end of 1818 he was caring for his brother Tom who had contracted tuberculosis, because of Keats’ weakened system it was inevitable that he would also contract tuberculosis. Tom sadly died on 1 December 1818. Keats continued to write, and by the summer of 1819 he was ill with the first stage of tuberculosis. In February he started to haemorrhage, from the colour of the blood he knew he was dying.  It was decided that he should travel to Italy for the winter.

On the 13 September he left England for Naples with his friend Joseph Severn, the artist. They spent ten days in quarantine before arriving in Rome on the 14 November. He became a patient of Sir James Clark who had set up a practice in Rome, and took up residence in the Casino Rossa in the Plazza di Spagna. Clark’s diagnosis was consumption and to counteract the effects of the mercury, which damages the stomach, he  prescribed a starvation diet and blood letting. Keats as a physician was well aware that it was futile. He died at the age 25 and during his very short life he produced some beautiful poems. Keats had been invited to Pisa by his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, Keats hoped he would visit him after his stay in Rome. Shelley wrote Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats upon hearing of his death. A year later when Shelley drowned there was a small copy of the Keats’ poetry in his pocket.

After the death of Keats the furniture, curtains, wallpaper and his personal property were burnt to stop the spread of disease and infection, this was decreed by Vatican Law. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Shelley’s ashes were also interned here and they were joined by Joseph Severn in 1879.

The room where Keats died, the ceiling, fireplace and flooring are the only original features left.

Over the years the house fell into disrepair, but it was still attracting attention as the site where Keats died. By 1903 two American ladies were living there and showing visitors around. Eventually in 1906 a group of English, American and Italians raised the money to purchase the rundown Casino Rossa and after restoration it was formally opened in December 1909. Over the years the house suffered from only being available to the academics and its future was uncertain. In 1976 Sir Joseph Cheyne, Bt became curator and worked tirelessly to change the image; he encouraged school parties and made the house a tourist attraction. When Cheyne retired in 1990 its visitors numbered 11,000. The property is owned by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, a British charity, it is run as a commercial business open six days a week, all year round except for one week in December. The house’s running costs are covered by the admission fee, a gift shop and the rental income. It has a library of over eight thousand books devoted to English Romanticism, holds various events, exhibitions and poetry readings. They have a book club, competitions, awards and a website doing a successful job to keep the memory of the dead poet alive.

In the centre of the Piazza is located an unusual fountain shaped like a sinking boat. The Fontana della Barcaccia was designed by Petro Bernini. The water for the fountain was supplied from the Acqua Vergine, one of the Roman aqueducts constructed by Consul and Architect Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Bernini’s design of a leaking boat compensated for the minimal water pressure. The fountain was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1623. It was started in 1627 and completed after his death in 1629 by his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. John Keats could hear the water flowing from the fountain and requested that the epitaph on his headstone should read: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

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The Piazza and Fontana della Barcaccia viewed from Keats-Shelley Museum

As previously mentioned the Piazza di Spagna was the area where English tourists congregated and as a nation we are very fond of a cup of tea. Two ladies who arrived in Italy in 1893 were able to exploit this need in order to make a successful business which is still flourishing today. Babington’s Tea Rooms can be found on the left side of the steps.

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Babington’s Tea Rooms

When the English Anna Maria Babington and the New Zealand Isabel Cargill arrived in Rome they invested their £100 in opening a tea rooms on the Via dei Due Macelli, close to the piazza. Obviously it was a resounding success, as it provided the comforts of home for the weary tourist, and the next year they relocated to the building on the left side of the steps.

In 1910 Annie Cargill the sister of Isabel, arrived in Rome and opened the Hotel Londra & Cargill on the corner of Via Collina and the Piazza Sallustio. The hotel is a large building dating from the 1800s and is open to this day. Unfortunately the tea room business was effected by the outbreak of the first world war and this continued into the 1920s. Anna Maria moved to Switzerland due to ill health and sadly died of a heart attack. Isabel’s daughter Dorothy, from her marriage to the Italian artist Giuseppe da Pozzo, took over the management of the tea rooms. Annie invested money in the tea rooms, they were refurbished and business started to pick up again. Throughout the second world war the family left Rome, when they returned after the war they found out that the staff had kept the tea rooms open using their own rations. This family run business is still as successful as ever, and has built up a worldwide following through its website and sales of its merchandise.

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

A Florence Literary Apartment

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Over the Ponte Vecchio on the south bank of the river Arno is the area of Oltrarno home to the Pitti Palace and its vast Medici collections. A short walk along via de’ Guicciardini, where the via Maggio and via Mazzetta meet is located the Casa Guidi, part of the Palazzo Guidi. The Palazzo was originally two separate houses dating from the 15th century built by the Ridolfi family. Count Camillo Guidi, a secretary of state for the Medici acquired one of the houses in 1618, and it was the Guidi family who amalgamated the two properties in the 18th Century and then divided the piano nobile into two apartments in the early 1840s. It was here that Elizabeth and Robert Browning lived for fourteen years producing some of their best works and their only son Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, who was known simply as Pen. So to combine the story of a literary couple eloping from a domineering father with the romance of Italy, surely it is a match made in Heaven.

The exterior of Casa Guidi is quite unassuming. Unless you knew its location or happened to look up above the large front door and see the stone tablet in Italian, you would be unawhere that this was the Browning home.

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Here wrote and died
Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
in whose womanly heart were
united profound learning and poetic genius;
and who by her verse wove a golden wreath
between Italy and England.
Florence, in gratitude,
placed this memorial here in 1861

 

In 1893 Pen bought the Palazzo in the hope of establishing a permanent memorial to his parents. Unfortunately he died in 1912, and his mother’s family, the Moulton-Barretts, and his widow sold all the furniture, books, letters and personal items by auction at Sotheby’s between the 1st and 8th May 1913. The Palazzo was sold to Ellen Centaro an American who wished to set up a Browning Foundation in the Casa Guidi. The Foundation was a failure, so it was rented out, becoming a linguistic club and very rundown. By 1969 Centaro’s family wanted to sell the apartments including Casa Guidi for office space. The Browning Society of New York launched an appeal to save Casa Guidi. It was successful and the newly formed Browning Institute took over its management in 1971, starting the initial work of restoration, to house a small collection of memorabilia, and open it to the public. It was Philip Kelley, editor of Elizabeth’s letters who approached Eton College who took over ownership and leased it to The Landmark Trust; together they carried on the work of restoring the property. It would become a cultural study centre eight weeks of the year for the students of Eton College, a holiday apartment at other times on the proviso that the property would be refurnished as it looked in the 1850s and remain open to the public. The four rooms are open to the public between April to November on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 3-6pm; there is no entrance fee but an opportunity to give a donation.

 

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Casa Guidi is a memorial to an important literary couple where you can be transported back in time, helped by the unaltered location.

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Renting the apartment gives people the unique experience of actually staying in the rooms where the Browning’s lived, to sleep in the bedroom where she gave birth to Pen and ultimately died. They are free to wander through the rooms, admire themselves in the Browning’s rococo cherub mirror, read the books in the large bookcase, sit at Robert’s desk soaking up the atmosphere and maybe become inspired to write. This is a very different museum.

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The painstaking research undertaken to reproduce the Browning home, using the 1861 drawing room painting by George Mignaty, Elizabeth’s letters and the 1913 auction catalogue, provides a tangible heritage, and an atmosphere to maintain the intangible memory of a family and their times.

The three interior photos are from commons.wikimedia.org., and the other photos are from the author’s own collection.