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Holburne Museum

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by Tom Fieldhouse (subscribe)
I am a freelance writer, living in Bath with my wife and son. I love my city, and love to live here. I write about Bath a lot, and sometimes about travels in Ireland and France.
Published November 16th 2017
Holburne Museum- A Riot of Colours to Discover
Holburne Museum
Holburne Museum
The front of the Holburne Museum in the early morning. The commanding Georgian facade faces the wide boulevard of Great Pulteney Street.

The Holburne Museum can be found at the heart of Georgian Bath, at one end of Great Pulteney Street. This beautiful public gallery was once the Sidney Hotel, which was built in 1796 to serve the Sydney 'pleasure' Gardens. Once containing a labyrinth and swings for visitors today, it remains the only existing pleasure garden in the country. Both the gardens and the museum have free admission for all, but there are three annual temporary exhibits that charge 10 admission. Nevertheless, these offer free admission for under 16's, and there are other concessions. Considering the wonderfully varied and Internationally significant works of art on display, it is incredible that this museum is free for all to enjoy.

Tip - The Permanent Collection at the Holburne

Spread over its three floors, the museum galleries are bursting with wonderful sculptures, ornaments and oil paintings, and most of the works have an intimate connection with the city of Bath. The kernel of the collection comprises of the lifelong collection of Sir Francis Holburne, himself a Bath resident. Visitors can enjoy his celebrated and eclectic collection, that comprises of everything from antique folding cutlery to incredibly realistic miniature portraits, all displayed in well- lit cabinets next to fascinating notes.

The Posnett Gallery
Treasures and keepsakes from a lifetime of collecting. The Posnett Gallery is a moving tribute to a famous art lover.

Interspersed between trinkets and treasures are the works of world famous renown, such as 'Dance from a Wedding in open air'' by Brueghel. Occupying pride of place is also the military sword of Sir Holborne's brother, fatally wounded at a battle during the Napoleonic War. It truly is a worldwide collection, with pieces from China, Egypt and Germany, to name but a few. Helpful guides and magnifying glasses are provided for visitors, in order to see the exquisite detail of some of the smaller items.

Oil painting at its most exuberant, showing a wedding dance with guests celebrating together.

Miniature carving
An intricately carved German miniature, showing almost microscopic detail.

The skylit upper gallery features some wonderful art, and amongst these are some massive and larger than life oil paintings by Sir Thomas Gainsborough. My favourite is the intriguing portrait of Dr Rice who was a Bath physician. It is believed that Gainsborough gave Rice this painting as payment for medical treatment during the years that he lived in Bath.

Dr Rice
The good Doctor, painted in a pastoral scene to show that he was a man of nature and feeling as well as a physician.

Upper Gallery
The skylit upper gallery with its Gainsborough oil paintings

Tip - Seurat to Riley- The Art of Perception' temporary exhibition.

The Sunday Times paper called this exhibition 'Dazzling', and with good reason. It is a celebration of how artists have used colour and colour science as a way to excite and interact with the viewer. Artists dating from the Impressionist Georges Seurat to the Op artist Bridget Riley are represented, and this two-gallery exhibition is a feast for the eyes. The works of art jump out at the viewer, and I found myself amazed by the whole riot of colours that I could see within the paintings. Far from experimental and randomly painted lines and shapes, I was fascinated to see how geometric and mathematical they were and enjoyed reading about the foundations of colour science that inspired the artists.

Colour Science chart
The early principals of colour science, used from the Impressionists to the present day.

Beginning with two beautiful Seurat paintings, the exhibition explores how the eye and brain perceives colour and tries to make sense of shapes and shades. Several other artists are featured throughout the show, but I will focus on Seurat and Riley. My eye was drawn to a small Oil painting, showing the impression of houses in the background. On closer inspection, I could only see orange brushstrokes, yet the artist's skills suggested so much more. Really looking at the mechanics of the paintings was a fascinating experience.

George Seurat's 'A Morning Walk', featuring his 'pointillist' technique. A brilliant display of colour.

My favourite part was undoubtedly the Riley black and white geometric paintings. They were amazing and seemed to shimmer and spin in front of my eyes. There are many, many paintings of hers, but I was extremely impressed with two in particular. The meticulously drawn lines were only in black and white, but all manner of colours seemed to flow from the canvas, and these even changed as I looked at them from a different viewpoint. The exhibition really is about perception, and what a fluid concept this is.

Waves and curves
Flowing black and white lines that seemed to shimmer and shift. I learned that this was all due to the brain trying to make sense of information drank in by my eyes.

Resting my eyes for a moment, I loved looking at the many coloured 'Ecclesiastica', painted in 1985. Although starkly different to the Black and White compositions, my eyes were still drawn to many different elements of the striped canvas and found it difficult to settle on just one point. Every time I sought out a principal colour, another one presented itself to me. It was an interesting sensation.

Striking stripes, on a canvas crowded with colour.

This exhibition very cleverly demonstrates the immense contributions that Seurat and Riley have made to art. It was clear to see the lasting impressions and influences that they have made on more recent artists, and how the principles of colour science have seemed into popular culture and design. A painting that seemed to encapsulate these principals was 'Untitled/Pink', by Lothar Gotz. Reminiscent of a setting sun, I saw a great deal of Riley in the composition. I shall remember going to this exhibition for a long time.

Lothar Gotz
'Untitled/Pink', by Lothar Gotz, with its bold pink and teal lines.

Tip - Enjoy the Space and Scenery

This superb institution is situated in a very beautiful and impressive part of Bath. Before exploring the gallery itself, it is well worth walking around the museum itself, to enjoy the outside of the building itself. From the front entrance, it looks like a grand Georgian manor house, cut from Bath stone. However, a walk to the side of the building reveals an impressive glass and ceramic cube, which houses the museum's garden cafe. Although bold and imposing from the outside, it has created a bright and airy cafe space, which feels very tranquil and natural inside. In this sense, the building almost has two distinct identities, and I love it for that.

The Garden Cafe
The dramatic facade of the Garden Cafe, with its outside tables. Not visible from the front of the building, it was lovely to discover it.

Cafe interior
Inside the bright and spacious cafe, that looks out towards Sydney Gardens

A stroll through Sydney Gardens is also a wonderful thing to do, before or after exploring the Holburne. These immaculately cared for gardens are delightful and especially beautiful on early autumn mornings. Walkers can also access the canal pathway and head out of the city for a more rural walk, should they wish.

Sydney Gardens
Leaf-strewn Sydney Gardens, as seen in the early morning sun. Taken with my back to the Holburne.

It is well worth browsing the museum's website to find out about the wealth of other experiences that are offered. The Museum motto is 'Changing Lives Through Art', and their many events and workshops aim to do just that. I was struck by how friendly and helpful the guides and staff were, and also by how children are catered for very thoughtfully. One such example is the educational space that could be found at the centre of the 'Perceptions' exhibition, all decked out in colour investigation activities. I am going to return in a few days with my five-year-old son, to let him discover and explore with colour science. I might just join in.

Educational space
A colour science work station for little ones

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Why? Free Art Gallery and Museum at the heart of Bath
When: See website for opening hours
Phone: 01225388654
Where: Great Pulteney Street, next to Sydney Gardens
Cost: Most galleries are free of charge, but the temporary exhibition is ticketed.
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