Episode 8: The Museums & Galleries of Bath

Victoria Art Gallery Stairway

Last Updated on December 1, 2023 by Marian Jones

Here we present a selection of Bath museums and galleries: for art, there’s the Holburne Museum and the Victoria Art Gallery. Then there’s the house where astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus. We must mention the Fashion Museum, even though it’s currently closed. It’s left its previous home in the Assembly Rooms and will re-open in the centre of town, but not for some while. We’ll let you know when its amazing collection, ranging from Elizabethan-era gloves to the very latest ‘dress of the year’ is open to the public again.

Bath’s other main museums have all been covered in previous posts: the Roman Baths (Episode 02), the Jane Austen Museum (Episode 7) and two in  Episode 05, namely Number One, Royal Crescent and the Museum of Bath Architecture.

the holburne museum

The Holburne Museum was Bath’s first public art gallery, originally opened to house the collection of William Holburne at the end of the 18th century. During a colourful life which included serving as an 11-year-old at the Battle of Trafalgar, William became a collector of distinction and today the exhibits include bronzes, porcelain, embroidery and, especially, paintings. There are a number of portraits, reflecting 18th century Bath which attracted portrait painters because of the many wealthy visitors spending a season here who had the time and the money to commission them. Gainsborough, for example, spent a decade in Bath doing what he called ‘picking pockets in the portrait way’.

Portraits exhibited here include one of Lettice Mary Banks, daughter of a wealthy landowner, in a lace-fringed bonnet and a blue satin dress, painted by William Hoare in 1746. Gainsborough’s portrait of the Bristol MP, Robert Craggs Nugent is here too, along with a striking portrait of Henrietta Laura Pultney, painted by Angelica Kaufmann in about 1777. Henrietta was the daughter of Sir William Pultney who financed the building of this area of Bath and named local streets after himself (Great Pultney Street) and his daughter (Laura Place, Henrietta Street). An 18th century set of theatrical paintings includes one of the actor David Garrick and there is also a miniature portrait of the flamboyant Bath society host, Beau Nash.

There’s a fine collection of 18th century silverware and porcelain, all very Jane Austen. Think soup tureens, sauceboats and condiment sets, along with the various items needed to partake of the newly fashionable hot drinks – tea bowls, coffee pots and special cups with covered lids from which hot chocolate was served. Some of Britain’s first souvenirs are here too, bought by visitors who came to Bath for ‘the season’. There are pictures of Bath scenes, such as an aquatint of Sydney Gardens and prints of Bath Abbey and South Parade. There’s a lady’s fan with an engraving of Bath on it and little souvenir ‘patchboxes’ with pictures or an engraved message such as ‘A Trifle from Bath.’

the victoria art gallery

The Victoria Art Gallery was named to celebrate the 60th year of Queen Victoria’s reign. The statue outside was presented to the queen by women of Bath and the grand entrance hall and marble staircase are definitely Victorian in style. In the permanent collection on the ground floor you can see 500 years of European art, from the Adoration of the Magi from 1480 to early 21st century works and including paintings of Bath by John Nash, such as The Canal Bridge and Sydney Gardens. There’s a good selection of still lifes, portraits and landscapes, as well as sculpture, glassware and decorative arts.

The herschel museum of astronomy

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy is at 19 New King Street, where William Herschel, ‘the greatest telescope-maker of his day’ lived and where, in the garden on March 13th, 1781, he discovered the planet Uranus. It was the first time since the ancient Greeks that a new planet had been discovered and it made his reputation. He later left Bath to become the royal astronomer at the court of George III. At the museum you can see the workshop where he once nearly blew himself up, and a selection of his globes and telescopes. His sister Caroline lived here too and was herself an astronomer, discoverer of several comets and winner of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

the fashion museum

The Fashion Museum is currently closed while the collection is moved to a brand new home in the Old Post Office in the city centre. It’s an ambitious plan and will take a little time. Currently, it’s estimated that the museum will re-open in 2027/8. You can find out more here.

The oldest garments in the collection include an Elizabethan man’s embroidered shirt and a pair of decorated gloves such as Shakespeare may have worn. From Jane Austen’s era there’s a quintessential Regency gown from about 1815 and a demure white cotton sprigged frock such as the Bennett girls may have worn. The collection goes right up to the present day and includes, for example, a Christian Dior blue sequinned tulle evening dress worn and donated by Margot Fonteyn. The Dress of the Year collection displays typical outfits from particular years, such as a 1967 orange and pink trouser suit, a 1992 women’s pin-striped trouser suit and a t-shirt from 2017 bearing the slogan ‘We should all be feminists’

The Bath Postal Museum, mentioned on the podcast, is unfortunately now permanently closed.

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The Holburne Museum
The Victoria Art Gallery
The Herschel Museum of Astronomy
The Fashion Museum

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