Sir William Holburne and his Collection

Thomas William Holburne (generally known as William) was born near Swansea in 1793, the fifth child and third son of Sir Francis and Lady (Alicia) Holburne. Little is known of William's father, although his grandfather, Admiral Francis Holburne (1704-1771), had gained considerable public recognition during the Seven Years’ War.

Sir Francis’ two surviving sons were both destined for active service rather than the leisurely life of the gentry on a country estate. The eldest, another Francis, joined the army in 1809, was commissioned in the 3rd Foot Guards, fought under Wellington through the Peninsular Campaign and died of wounds after a skirmish near Bayonne in 1814.

William had joined the Navy in July 1805 at the age of eleven, and within months saw action on HMS Orion at Trafalgar. William's Trafalgar medals and a snuffbox made from part of HMS Victory survive in the Collection. The following years of service saw him at the blockade of Toulon in 1806, in the West Indies in 1808, on the Brazil station and back in the Mediterranean, the Western Approaches and the English Channel before coming home on half pay in 1815. Under such circumstances, his survival into adulthood was by no means unremarkable.

There was therefore little or nothing in his family and own early background that immediately marked him out for a distinguished career as an art collector: no grand tour of Italy in his teens, no extensive family collections from which to learn, no large country house or estate and no impressive family fortune.

The modest number of surviving paintings and objects from previous Holburne generations reflect standard Georgian taste: portraits of William's great-grandfather, great-uncle, grandfather and father and grandmother, part of a Chinese export porcelain dinner service commissioned on the Admiral’s marriage in 1749, some silver, and a modest library, some of which may have been sold along with the family jewels when William’s father died without a regular Will in 1820.

However, William Holburne’s early career equipped him with an ability and interest in travelling, which he appears to have enjoyed for most of his life. Secondly, his grandfather’s marriage had linked the Holburnes to the wealth, social leadership and artistic patronage exercised by the Lascelles family of Harewood in Yorkshire. Surviving correspondence shows that the Holburnes visited Harewood regularly, and that William was on close terms with his cousins, Edward, Viscount Lascelles (1767-1814), Henry, 2nd Earl of Harewood (1767-1841) and Henry, 3rd Earl of Harewood (1797-1857). This family contact covered the period when Harewood’s magnificent collections of paintings, furniture and other works of art were well known and admired.

In common with many naval families, William’s parents settled in Bath in 1802, renting a house in the fashionable new Georgian terraces on Lansdown, at no 7, Lansdown Place West. The younger Holburnes became acquainted with fashionable society and activity in Bath – theatre-going, music, parties and exhibition visiting, reported by Francis in his letters to his aunt Catherine Cussans. Bath in the first decades of the nineteenth century was no longer the pre-eminently fashionable resort it had once been, but still attracted good society, actors, artists and cognoscenti. It had an extremely active art market served by a number of well-established auction rooms, providing aspiring collectors with opportunities to buy paintings, sculpture and objets d’art.

Catherine Cussans (1753-1834) may also have influenced William’s interest in art, for she had a small collection of antiquities, Meissen and Sèvres porcelain in her house in Hill Street, London. After her death in 1834 Holburne benefited from her legacies and purchased from her sale a few small items of classical origin in porphyry and other marbles and the portrait of her by Hoppner.

Finally, in 1820, William Holburne inherited the family baronetcy, acquired in 1706 by his ancestor James Holburne, thus establishing own social position, and after some difficulty gained a portion of his father’s wealth in addition to his naval pension. At last he was equipped as a gentleman of leisure and means, and his career as a collector of art was achievable after unpropitious beginnings. In 1830, following his mother’s death, Holburne and his three spinster sisters bought, decorated and furnished a new house in the classical style in Cavendish Crescent, Bath. Here the four of them were to live for the rest of their lives, enjoying open views on one side and a substantial garden on the other, with prospects directly towards William Beckford's houses in Lansdown Crescent. None of them married. Over the years the house was gradually filled with Sir William's extensive and wide-ranging collection of paintings, miniatures, bronzes, porcelain, gems, silver, furniture, ceramics, books and prints.

Sir William died on 17 February 1874 and was buried, with his sisters, in Lansdown Cemetery next to Beckford's Tower, a fitting resting place for a great collector.

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