The Holburne Museum is a pivotal building in a sublime city. Built, like all Bath’s 18th-century houses, from a honey-golden local limestone, it terminates a vista that was to have been the spine of the city’s expansion. Instead, it fell victim to the 1790s financial crash and remained incomplete.
Originally called the Sydney Hotel, it was built in 1796 as a casino and an entry pavilion to Bath’s pleasure gardens. Visitors entered via the arches in its base, passed through a gauze curtain decorated with the image of Apollo and emerged to music from the bandstand on a terrace above into a charmed landscape of 18th-century decadence. Crowds in powdered wigs milled around admiring fireworks, grottoes, theatrical performances and, most importantly, each other.
As this landscape of leisure decayed in a more serious Victorian age, the gardens were scythed through, first by a canal and then by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway. Then, in the 1890s, the building was converted to house the collection of Sir William Holburne (1793-1874), which was bequeathed to Bath by his sister. Now the building has been reunited with the romantic landscape from which it was parted, and the addition of an £11.2m extension by architect Eric Parry has radically – and controversially – changed and expanded it.
Unesco-protected Bath is notoriously conservative, its citizens and planners wary of anything not of a piece with its restrained Georgian elegance. It has suffered some very bad new buildings, as many classical in style as resolutely modern. Neither camp has a monopoly on ugliness.
Parry’s brief was to expand the exhibition space, provide the usual café and education facilities and create a new gallery for temporary shows. His extension – invisible from Bath itself – eschews the local stone and classical detail in favour of lightness, transparency and playfulness, using glass and ceramic in a language, arguably, of corporate mid-century modernity. The architect has described the building as “Janus-faced”, addressing both the Roman-inspired urbanity of the city and the twilit artifice of the gardens. It is this contrast that led to the animosity that greeted its proposal.
The three-storey block of glass is vertically striated by a series of ceramic strips glazed in an unusual blue and green finish. Their colour, constantly changing in tone as you move around the building, makes clear the relationship to the gardens; there is also something disquieting about the way they appear suspended like liquid trails on the glass facade.
The original building behind is more or less retained and the Edwardian galleries remain. A fine top-lit gallery has been decluttered to show off paintings by the likes of Gainsborough, Zoffany and Stubbs.
At the rear, in the new block, Holburne’s seemingly endless stuff is displayed in what Parry describes as a “casket”, crammed in an approximation of the original domestic clutter. The exhibition (by designers Metaphor) allows the vitrines and hanging objects to be seen enfilade, so that they are always seen against either city or garden, the context of Bath constantly and subtly introduced into the interior. At the top is a new gallery for temporary exhibitions, now housing artist Peter Blake’s enchanting collections of pop ephemera, displayed next to his own art to show the influence of collecting on the work. There could hardly have been a better opening show, a complementary celebration of eccentric English collecting.
Parry, one of the few British architects able comfortably to negotiate the territory between building for commerce and for the arts, has done what he set out to do – to re-establish a long-lost link between the Georgian city and the magical gardens, and to make a cluttered house into a real museum. All that is left is to re-imagine a pleasure garden for the 21st century. What a wonderful commission that would be.
‘Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself’ runs until September 4, www.holburne.org