James Yorke

Concealed treasures

The Holburne Museum of Bath is a delight. Its collections were formed by Sir William Holburne (1793–1874), a naval officer who first saw action at the Battle of Trafalgar at the age of 12 and retired to Bath in 1820 to dedicate his celibate life — he shared his house with his three sisters — mostly to travel and collecting. Since 1912, his collections have been housed in a beautiful neoclassical building, originally built as a hotel in the 1790s and situated at the end of Great Pultney Street. They include Imari porcelain, Maiolica pottery, Augsburg silver and Dutch 17th-century landscapes, as well as curios such as a spur, purportedly used by the Duke of Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgemoor (1685). Given their somewhat conservative nature, they provide a unique insight into the contents of those splendid 18th-century houses, with which Jane Austen would have been familiar.

Secret Splendour takes one into the world of the 17th-century collector and how he housed and displayed his collections. These he would place in his most swanky piece of furniture, the cabinet, which he would have had decorated with tortoiseshell, embossed silver, inlaid tropical woods, or painted and japanned in the oriental style. The most expensive cabinets were imported from Japan or China, but they were also made all over Europe, particularly in Augsburg, Antwerp, Eger, Paris, Naples and even London, and it is the European cabinet in all its varied forms that is on show in this exhibition.

Secret Splendour consists of 13 cabinets, dating from about 1600 to 1700: three come from the Holburne Collection, and the remainder are on loan, mostly from the Victoria & Albert Museum. The star item from the ‘home team’ is a yellow (or rather discoloured white) japanned cabinet, acquired from Witcombe Park in Gloucestershire, probably made in London and painted with motifs inspired by Chinese porcelain.

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