Our original plan had been for an escape to Paris. Unforeseen events concertinaed a long weekend in the City of Light into a short stay in Bath, and I struggled against the thought that bohemian liberty had been exchanged for cosy English politeness – Beau Nash instead of Baudelaire. I even mourned for the smell of the Paris Metro. There would be no such smells, I was pretty sure, in Bath.
Bath represents the familiar in almost too many ways to count. The original sense of familiar is connected to family, and I have family connections with Bath. An ancestor, quite important in the family story, perhaps because he was the only one who ever managed to make any money, is buried in Bath Abbey and has a memorial tablet in the northwest porch, just above the one commemorating the Rev Thomas Malthus, the original ecological doom-monger (who may yet be proved correct).
I had a good look at this stone on our recent visit and was struck again by the pomposity and awkwardness of the 18th-century language: “To enumerate the several Virtues of this most excellent and worthy Man would greatly exceed the limits usually allotted to Memorials of this kind.” This periphrastic bombast takes up so much space that none is left to say anything that might summon up the particular character of George Bolton Eyres (deceased). I reckon he was something of a wheeler-dealer, as the East India Company records show that he was caught and reprimanded for engaging in improper trades.
My ancestor was one of a number of lucky, energetic, entrepreneurial, and possibly unscrupulous young 18th-century British men who made a fortune in the East India Company, and came back to live in some style with residences in Bath and London. A good idea of the kind of life some of them lived in India is given in Zoffany’s marvellous group portrait of the Auriol and Dashwood families in the Holburne Museum. What this picture conveys is the attempt to transplant English gentility into entirely inappropriate settings, as well as the quite stupendous boredom of the two young women in the centre of the painting, with their mild, powdered husbands.
Visiting the Holburne was one of the main aims of this short Bath visit, as I have been pondering loaning the portraits of George Bolton Eyres and his formidable wife that I inherited on the death of my father. The Holburne, one of the finest small museums in Britain, is a sort of mini-Wallace Collection, the life’s work of one of that bunch of collectors without heirs who include Sir Richard and Lady Wallace, John and Josephine Bowes and Sir William Henry and Lady Barber.
The Holburne is, in fact, far more interesting, quirky and varied than I had imagined it to be: the second-floor great gallery of 18th-century English portraits and conversation pieces is outstanding, with several magnificent Gainsboroughs and, in my view even better, three fascinating portraits by Allan Ramsay. But there is also some exceptional majolica, rare 17th-century English silver, Dutch landscapes, and Japanese netsuke.
The story of Sir William Holburne, the founder, is rather touching. He was devastated by the death of his elder brother at the battle of Bayonne in 1814, fought after the abdication of Napoleon but before the news had reached the French Basque country (now there’s a case where a mobile phone would have helped). Inheriting a baronetcy and eventually part of his father’s fortune, he never married but lived for the rest of his life with three unmarried sisters in a house in Cavendish Crescent, quietly building up the collection that would be his legacy and gift to the world. The range of his tastes and interests indicates a man of unusual sensibility, not as conventional as the fine Georgian exterior of the museum might indicate.
I spent half my life getting away from Bath, and everything Bath represents. On leaving school I headed across the Channel and spent a freezing Parisian winter wandering around museums and reading Russian novels, in a state of extreme loneliness and intellectual excitement. On leaving university, I set off for Barcelona and found a life turned more outward than inward, in bars where people shouted and threw paper napkins and fish innards on the floor.
People don’t do that in Bath but I found the place growing on me, especially as an unexpected lunch invitation materialised and March sun fitfully illuminated the honey-stone streets with their beautifully carved names. The city, well known as a retirement haven for the affluent, is also full of young people, healthier and friendlier and less jaundiced-looking than their compeers in London.
All roads lead back to the abbey. We caught, by chance, a performance of Handel’s Messiah whose highlight was Michael Chance’s heartbreakingly eloquent rendition of the aria “He was despised”. I did think the City of Bath Bach Choir could have traded gentility for an ounce or two more oomph.
More columns at ft.com/eyres