MARCH 25, 2024

Review: The Holburne Museum, Bath: If like me you like a grand stair case then the Holburne Museum has a five star one as it rises up magnificently up the two storey former hotel and now art gallery built in 1794. Or should I say the home of Lady Danbury of TV’s Bridgerton? Yes – it is tele-perfect for period dramas. The grand Georgian era classical Grade 1 building was the home of Sir Thomas William Holburne who collected a lot of artworks and paintings on his naval travels and his collection is the basis of the museum. But I wanted to see the art of Gwen John – the sister of Augustus John the 1940s artist and pin up – in part because as a family we’ve holidayed in Tenby where the work of the siblings are on display in the town museum. So a sort of home coming and proof that women can paint and draw.

Ah. According to a chap I met women aren’t very good at art – and his opinion led to a full on argument with his wife in the café who introduced herself as an artist. I shared a table with them and the gentleman in question was quickly on the back foot as his wife quoted Mary Beale, Angelica Kauffmann, Elizabeth Butler, Laura Knight and so many other female artists that I lost count and he eventually conceded defeat saying they had not been recognised in the past compared to men. I did point out in Jane Austen’s novels the female sex include drawing as part of their accomplishments – and the art of Gwen John (1876-1939) was on display upstairs, but I decided not to get drawn into a heated domestic quarrel and left to see her exhibition upstairs – and what stairs they are. Other modes of elevation are available in the form of a lift.

Self portrait by Gwen John.

Gwen’s paintings have such a delicate and sensitive touch – mostly portraits – with many women as her subjects. My favourite one was Mère Poussepin (Mother Poussepin) since it is rendered almost entirely in light tones without strong shadows – and even her dark gown is light in colour. It’s in complete contrast to the darker hues of her self-portrait of 1902 which welcomes visitors to the exhibition and perhaps shows a growing confidence in its execution. I particularly liked her later oil painting of a Young Woman Holding a Black Cat which I know my daughter would enjoy since she’s a cat lover – but like all of the portraits there’s a slight feeling of melancholy about the expressions.

The home of Lady Danbury of TV’s Bridgerton better known as the Holburne Museum

When you enter the front door of the Holburne there is a work in progress of a seven-panel mural depicting 130 women from British history and culture commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery as part of a three-year project to enhance female representation in its collection. The mural, by Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake, was inspired by the absence of women in the album cover for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and covers the wall as you enter reception. I was struck by the gorgeous faces of the assembled good, the great and the influential. Some I knew but others were a mystery – and sadly none of them had their mobile numbers listed so I couldn’t give Queen Victoria or Mary Quant a call. This part of the museum is free so if you don’t want to do the museum you can just call in – as the shop and café are also free to enter.

Detail of the mural, by Jann Haworth and Liberty BlakeThe main picture is another detail from the work.

By the way I had just cycled there so I was very hungry and had pain au raison and a latte for £6 and an orange juice for a pricey £3.45. Entrance is £12.50 with a donation but they charged me £11 while children under 18 don’t pay and those who are aged 18-25 have a reduced rates so ideal for art students. And talking of art there is so much to see. There was an exhibition of Gillian Lowndes called Radical Clay, and Lubaina Himid’s vibrant textiles adorn several rooms adding a very different tone to the more formal art galleries. Sir William Holburne had certainly been busy collecting paintings with works by Gainsborough, Stubbs and Turner. One painting by George Stubbs is of a family with their horse and trap. Excellent rendition of the horses but perhaps not so brilliant are the people – while in Gainsborough’s painting of a family in their extensive grounds the depictions are brilliant – I just wish he’d done some badly drawn horses to balance things up with Stubbs. Whoops – it is easy to fall into the game of making captions for some of the works. Such as the picnic of colonials in India where just about everything you need for an alfresco nosh up is in the picture along with servants – but did they remember the insect repellent? And a painting of the actor Garrick cries out for a caption as he raises a dagger above the head of a frightened lady such as ‘line!?’

There are several theatricals decpicting scenes from plays and operas like this one of David Garrick – which I felt need a caption – ‘Line?!’

Time was against me as I had a pressing engagement with a pint of beer in The Raven so I really must return to do the rest of the collections, justice another time. The ceramics, glass, miniature portraits, Roman glass, furniture and much more I could only glance at. So with the clocking ticking towards opening time, I made my exit mounted my bicycle and peddled off down the magnificent Great Pulteney Street with a mind full of high art – and my ears still ringing over the argument about women and art. I think Gwen John’s portraits rather settled the matter.

Harry Mottram

For more visit

The Jann Haworth & Liberty Blake: Work In Progress display ends of April 5 and Gwen John’s exhibition ends on April 14.

The museum has an active Friends group which offers lots of perks – and they organise fund raising events to help to pay for the eye-watering costs to heat and light the place. As one of the Friends said to me once, ‘The Holburne punches above its weight, with few to rival it outside of London.’