Andrew Lambirth

Something old, something new

Very last chance to see the inaugural exhibition at the magnificently revamped Holburne Museum — a selection from the collections of Peter Blake, together with some of his own work.

Something old, something new
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Very last chance to see the inaugural exhibition at the magnificently revamped Holburne Museum — a selection from the collections of Peter Blake, together with some of his own work. If, as Geoffrey Grigson suggested, the mind is an anthology, and the museum case or exhibition is a map of that mind, then what a remarkably diverse but ordered person Mr Blake must be. The new temporary exhibition gallery at the top of the Holburne’s new wing is filled with images of fantasy, dream and even nightmare, but everything is calmly laid out with great clarity and precision. The result is obsessional but intriguing.

The museum reopened in May, its Grade 1 listed building restored and extended by Eric Parry Architects, the grand staircase moved, and the new spaces locked together with the old in a way that makes a harmonious and workable whole. The building stands at the top of Great Pulteney Street, looking down towards the river and the town, with Sydney Gardens at its rear. The original façade is unchanged, as the extension is at the back of the building, reconnecting it with the park in which it is situated, and giving it, in effect, a new (garden) front. The glass box of the extension is articulated by, and constructed around, a series of vertical ceramic beams, subtly mottled like old copper. On the ground floor a spacious café looks out on to the gardens through appropriately transparent walls.

The glass and ceramic extension blends surprisingly well with the warm honey tones of the original Bath stone, details of which are newly visible from inside the extension. I used to visit the old museum quite often when I had a flat in Bath, and the changes are remarkable. The building has been opened up and restored, provided with 80 per cent more display space and a variety of vistas between the rooms, linking inside and outside. The experience of walking through it is now richly varied and exciting, with the architecture collaborating with the displays to offer changes in pace and narrative. On the first floor, the ballroom looks as grand as it sounds, with its unobtrusive new display cases and a long dining table set with beautiful silver and china. Sir William Holburne’s own collection (he founded the museum in the 19th century) is evocative of a crowded interior, while in and above this display are suspended 11 vases in a dramatic segue between this floor and the mezzanine upstairs.

On the mezzanine are the collections of 18th-century sculpture and figurines, including a wonderfully ornate Bow porcelain ‘Girl with monkey and parrots’, and then on the top floor the restored picture gallery boasts a new Gainsborough portrait on loan and several additional Zoffanys. A side gallery offers a group of drawings by the museum’s artist-in-residence, Karen Wallis, telling the story of the rebuilding. Then at the back is the new temporary exhibition space, currently hosting Peter Blake’s cabinets of curiosities. One is filled with elephants and shell boxes and figures, another contains puppets from a Punch and Judy outfit, and between them is positioned an early Blake object/collage entitled ‘Locker’.

There are two more cabinets, one displaying small sculptures that Blake has collected by such artists as David Nash, Clive Barker, Colin Self and Claes Oldenburg, and the final one focusing on the theme of Celebrity. In this are Max Miller’s cane and shoes, Ian Dury’s rhythm stick and Douglas Fairbanks’s hat worn in the 1922 film Robin Hood, plus a selection of Elvis memorabilia.

Around the walls is hung a mixture of Blake’s own work and further instalments from his collections. Thus here are Tom Thumb’s boots and a series of Blake’s woodcuts called ‘Side-Show’ (1974–8), featuring the Fat Boy, the Bearded Lady, the Tattooed Man, the Giant and the Midget. Then there are a couple of Blake’s own drawn and painted renditions of circus and fairground, with some freakish inventions of the taxidermist, once owned by an ex-fire-eater and sword-swallower called Stromboli.

Have you had enough? Not yet. There are sculptures to Tarzan and Damien Hirst (a collection of miniature bottles of booze), a corner of assemblages devoted to white or black and white, a section devoted to alphabets, another to collages by Schwitters, Cornell, Paolozzi and Henderson, four plinthed tableaux of dreams and a group of reliefs constructed from objects picked up within a certain area, which could be anywhere from Brighton beach to Craigie Aitchison’s studio, and called ‘Memories of Place’. A Tussauds bust of Leslie Caron, a group of famous autographs and some remnants from Sgt Pepper round out the exhibition.

The accompanying publication (softback, £18.99) is really about Blake’s London studio and his collections, rather than a catalogue to the exhibition. It contains an interview with the artist by the Holburne’s director, Alexander Sturgis, and useful commentary on individual objects such as Max Miller’s shoes (‘They were in a terribly sad little auction’), or themes such as collage or kitsch. The book is an invaluable addition to the Blake bibliography, recording such poignant items as the relics of an early installation ‘Crazy said Snow White’ and the collection of walking sticks he bought in a Bath junk shop when living in nearby Wellow.

Indeed, Blake bought many of his early objects in Bath, so the relationship with the Holburne is a peculiarly apt one. However, the very first items he purchased for his collection were from a junkyard in Gravesend when he was 14, so he now has some 65 years of acquisition behind him, and is still buying at auction. In that time, Blake has built up ‘great banks of stuff’ which can be used to make collages or objects, as well as amassing groups of objects that are collections in their own right. Thus the dividing line between what is collection and what is Blake’s art is infinitely permeable. One of the strengths of the Holburne’s exhibition is to show the collection in dialogue with the art, and the intriguing ways in which Blake combines the roles of artist and collector.

The next temporary exhibition at the museum features Gainsborough’s landscapes (from 24 September 2011 until 22 January 2012), and I very much hope to return to review that. It’s difficult to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of a new exhibition space on one viewing only, with one very particular installation in residence. I look forward to seeing how the curators develop a rapport with the new gallery, and discover different ways of showing a variety of exhibits. Certainly the permanent collection has been sympathetically and inventively relocated.

With this appealing and impressive revamp, the Holburne is fast establishing itself as one of the premier museums of the south-west.