Nicola here. It’s always a pleasure to visit the Holburne Museum in Bath (it’s always a pleasure to visit Bath!) and last week Baden and I hopped on the train to go and see the exhibition on The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics, which has had rave reviews and I’ve been desperate to see from the first.
It’s quite a thing to come face to face with some of the most famous names in Tudor history, particularly as the exhibition room is smaller than most galleries and therefore more intimate. It wasn’t busy either, which meant I could stand for as long as I liked in front of the paintings simply lapping up all the details.
First off was an extraordinary painting I have never seen before – a memorial painting for Sir Henry Unton from about 1596. His widow commissioned it as a
record of his life’s achievements which I thought was a wonderful and touching idea. Described in the 17th century as “a story picture” it’s packed full of the most incredible detail of Henry Unton’s life from his birth in about 1588 through his studies at Oxford, his travels on the continent, his life as a soldier and ambassador and all his cultural interests. It’s not just about Sir Henry though. The artist gives us glimpses of other people he encountered in his life, from his nurse to musicians, soldiers, doctors and servants. It’s a cornucopia of Tudor detail and it's marvellous. You can see the full painting here and my photo shows just one of the details from it – his birth. I adore the tiny white lion/dog!
Henry VII and Elizabeth Of York’s portraits started the timeline as the founders of the Tudor dynasty. I loved the vibrant colours of Elizabeth’s picture. The portrait of Henry was painted after her death when in 1505 he was proposing to marry Margaret of Savoy. Apparently she rejected his suit but whether or not the painting had anything to do with it is not clear!
It was of course impossible to ignore Henry VIII in the exhibition but I was more excited to see the portraits of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. For me though the best bit of the exhibition was called “Queenship: “We Princes who be Women.” Featuring Elizabeth I, Mary I, Jane Grey and Mary Queen of Scots it was a thought-provoking reflection on how a woman could rule when society viewed her as inferior to a man and saw her role as securing the future of the dynasty by providing sons. How could she marry and have children without surrendering power to a husband? In that context, Elizabeth’s decision to rule alone seems even more exceptional for a woman of her time.
The Tudor court would not have been complete without the power brokers such as Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell and portraits of both were present alongside Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster general, looking a little bit sinister. Then there were the dashing explorers – Drake and Raleigh, captured in miniatures that seemed to fizz with all their energy and dazzle.
And what of Elizabeth herself? The Armada portrait was there, as was the Darnley one, both with exquisite detail. The Darnley portrait is considered one on the most important paintings of Elizabeth as it was almost certainly painted from life and was used as the basis for many other portraits. I was fascinated by the exquisite detail on the fan – according to the National Portrait Gallery, "it was the custom for courtiers and members of the nobility to give the queen gifts at New Year; Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester, gave the queen a fan at New Year 1573–4 and there are records of various other fans that were given to her around that time. However, none of the descriptions exactly match the fan in this portrait."
Once I had viewed the exhibition and revived myself with a cup of tea in the cafe, I set out to explore the rest of the museum. There is so much to see, and as is fitting for the city of Bath, the Holburne has a splendid collection of Georgian items from an exquisite fan showing a view of North Parade to patch boxes, scent bottles and a beautiful silhouette of a lady taking tea.
Anyone interested in the Georgian and Regency periods would love the information on life in Georgian Bath. It really brings the place to life with little details that make the history of the city feel vibrant and alive. Although I've researched the era and the city in detail I hadn't realised, for example, that Bath's "toyshops" were particularly fine. Sir Walter Scott recalled happy memories of "the splendours of a toyshop somewhere near the Orange Grove." However these weren't toys for children as we think of them; instead they were novelty gifts for adults such as shoe buckles, needle-cases and snuff boxes. Bath was renowned for its shops, second only in fashion to London, and the silks, lace and luxuries were very highly prized.
The Holburne's paintings from the period are also wonderful. There is a picture of a lady's maid soaping linen by Henry Robert Morland which is exquisite but, I suspect, rather far from reality. Washing every piece of linen by hand must have been a chore and enough to chap the hands, a far cry from this glamorous image! You can see the picture here.
I must admit I fell in love with the miniature picture of Sir Thomas William Holburne of Menstrie, the founder of the collection on which the museum is based. He looks so interesting, sweet-natured and handsome! He was the son of a minor aristocratic family that had settled in Bath in the early nineteenth century. As a younger son he went into the navy in 1805 and served at Trafalgar. The collection contains a wooden snuffbox said to have been made from the ladder of HMS Victory. His elder brother Frank, who had been set to inherit the baronetcy, died at Waterloo and this is where the collection hits you with emotion for it contains a group of letters, one of which is tear-stained, reporting Frank's death to the family. That and the sword and silhouette of the dashing army officer made him very real and his family's grief very poignant.
All our museums and galleries have a special story to tell and we all have our favourite places, pictures and exhibits. For me (and Baden!) going to Bath is a real treat as there are so many places we love to visit there. At the end of the day we went home feeling tired but happy! Do you have a favourite treat place you love going to visit? Tell us about it!