Holburne Museum back open in Bath Pleasure Garden after £11.2 million rebuild

By Rhiannon Starr | 19 May 2011
A photo of a design for a square museum on grassland
© Hélène Binet
Opening: Holburne Museum, Bath

The Holburne Museum has reopened to reveal a sensitive £11.2 million restoration of the Grade I-listed enriched by an innovative extension.

Set within the park of Sydney Gardens, an 18th century Pleasure Garden, and facing down Great Pulteney Street, the location is a tableau of Bath at its most classical and grand.

Designed by Eric Parry, the refined addendum enhances the Museum twofold:  it offers further space for both a growing collection and temporary exhibitions and simultaneously unites the building with its exceptional surroundings.

The use of glass and ceramic invites a play of reflections and shadows upon the façade, the diaphanous quality weaving the classical structure, garden café and grounds together seamlessly. 

Parry explains that the modernity of the chosen materials is balanced by their employment in the tripartite classical tradition: ceramic at the uppermost level, ceramic veiled by glass at the intermediary level, glass at the base.

Such vacillating layers are ever-present, as the intimate new galleries are formed not from floor to ceiling displays, but by drifting panels which facilitate tonal glimpses beyond, above or below.

Alexander Sturgis, the museum’s Director, summarises the curatorial challenge as one of evoking the excitement of the collector’s mind - these spaces hold the legacy of antiquary Sir William Holburne – while still focusing attention on significant pieces.

To this end, a spectacular display of ornate vases float, suspended from the ceiling, amid airy glimpses out to the gardens. The numerous artefacts range from Dutch genre paintings to ivory portrait miniatures, embroideries, fans, furniture and perfume vials.

A photo of a tableau of cloth and old pictures
Peter Blake's A Museum for Myself is the star opening show at the museum
The refurbished galleries echo the elegant Bath Assembly Rooms, displaying Renaissance bronzes and maiolica as well as 18th century dining silver and porcelain. Highlights are the Susini sculpture Kneeling Woman Bathing and the extraordinary Diana and Actaeon plate, a rare example of early maiolica.

Since Sir William’s death in 1760, the collection has augmented its collection through bequests, donations and acquisitions, manifesting in the museum’s becoming renowned for its British painting vaults, featuring works by Raeburn, Ramsay, Stubbs, Zoffany, Turner and Gainsborough.

The first temporary exhibition, fittingly, is grounded in another personal collection – that of Sir Peter Blake, whom Sturgis cites as the most important living artist in this country.

Entitled A Museum for Myself, this display brings together remarkable objects accrued during a lifetime of collecting with seminal works by Blake himself.

A fascinating selection from Blake’s treasure trove of a studio – “the studio looks as though nothing has gone from it – it’s just as full,” he jokes – the curiosities include General Tom Thumb’s boots, Max Miller’s shoes and Ian Dury’s Rhythm Stick.

Blake defines the importance of this exhibition as the opportunity to absorb the spirit of the collection while viewing the work, facilitating an appreciation of the relationship between the two. 

Lastly, intimate sketches by Karen Wallis, artist in residence at the museum, are currently on display.

Her project to document the three-year transformation of the building flourished into larger drawings and expressive portraits of those who made this pioneering venture possible.

  • Open 10am-5pm (11am-5pm Sunday). Admission to museum free, admission to exhibitions £3-£6.50 (free for under-5s, family ticket £12). Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself and Karen Wallis: Drawing the Development both run until September 4 2011.
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