When you visit Bath don’t miss the Holburne Museum and Sydney Gardens. Just a short – and interesting – walk from the city centre, across the Pulteney Bridge and along Great Pulteney Street. Here you’ll find the oldest park in Bath and the city’s first public art gallery, with a fine collection of paintings and other artworks.
The Sydney Hotel and the Holburne Museum
The Holburne Museum is housed in the former Sydney Hotel, built in 1799 as an entrance to the newly created Bath Vauxhall Gardens. The hotel was a popular meeting place with a ballroom and restaurant. It hosted magnificent galas, particularly on the King’s birthday and at the time of the Bath Races. The hotel was converted into a private lodging house in 1836.
In 1912 the trustees of the Holburne collection purchased the building and it opened as an art gallery in 1916. A 3-story glass extension was added to the back of the building in 2011. The design of the extension was controversial at the time, although it won architectural awards. For today’s visitors the glass structure affords a view of the gardens while you enjoy a drink or a meal in the museum café.
Collections in the Holburne Museum
The museum is based on paintings and other objects belonging to Sir William Holburne, a baronet who died in 1874. These included porcelain, silver and other items that he had inherited, as well as paintings and artefacts he acquired over his lifetime. In 1882 William’s sister Mary bequeathed the entire collection to the people of Bath. Subsequent acquisitions have been in keeping with the original collection, with an emphasis on the 18th and 19th centuries.
Walking around the museum is quite an experience. The former ballroom and the extension are full of all manner of decorative art. And the upper floor is a gallery of paintings, mostly from the 18th century, including work by important British artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and George Stubbs. Although I have to admit that this isn’t my favourite period of art, I was intrigued by the paintings of theatrical performances featuring famous actors of the day, including David Garrick.
The Bath Vauxhall Gardens
The Sydney Gardens are the last remaining 18th century pleasure gardens in Britain. Laid out in the 1790s, they were originally known as the Bath Vauxhall Gardens, named after an earlier park at Vauxhall in London. This was a place for walking and recreation, with trees and paths as well as a grotto and a labyrinth. The gardens were also the scene of many grand events hosted by the Sydney Hotel.
Unusually for the 18th century, the gardens were frequented by people from all levels of society. Commoners could walk among royalty and other fashionable visitors to Bath. Jane Austen, who lived for a while in nearby Sydney Place, wrote of her pleasure at walking regularly in the grounds, particularly the labyrinth.
The Sydney Gardens Today
There have been major changes to the gardens over the years. Particularly significant was the construction of the Great Western Railway and the Kennet & Avon Canal, both of which passed through the grounds. However, these became a feature of the gardens, with bridges that allowed for a bit of barge- or train-spotting.
The Sydney Gardens were purchased by the local authority in 1908, and the Temple of Minerva (a replica of an original in the city’s Roman Baths) was added in 1911. Today the gardens are free for anyone to enjoy, and attempts are being made to renovate elements that have fallen into disuse, such as the labyrinth and the elaborate Edwardian toilets.
The Sydney Hotel and Gardens may have changed over the years. However they remain a popular amenity more than 200 years after they opened.
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