Bath: the Holbourne Museum and the Roman Baths

This winter season, we were lucky enough to get to go on a day trip to Bath, during which we were treated to the Gwen John exhibition at the Holburne Museum and the Roman Baths.

We started the day off at the Roman Baths, which was an impressively large indoor and outdoor exhibition comprised of buildings spanning the first to the nineteenth centuries. We were able to see the impressively preserved statues, walk amidst the old stones, and learn more about the multitude of travel routes that led to a Roman town being established by these thermal springs through artifacts such as coins and cloth. Not only were the Baths an impressive feat of engineering, they also had a religious function pre-dating Roman arrival – the worship of the Celt goddess Sulis, conflated later with the Roman Minerva. As a result of the springs, now-Bath also became a site of bustling trade. Thanks to the in depth exhibit, we were able to learn what people ate and what people used as votives – one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations for good reason.

After lunch, we headed to the picturesque Holburne Museum of Art on Great Pulteney Street. It started life as the Sydney Hotel in 1796, in the midst of Bath's busy city centre. There was an orchestra stand, multi-level dining stalls, and a good view of the promenaders in the Sydney Gardens - a favourite walk of Jane Austen. During this time, Bath was one of Britain's most fashionable cities, where many writers, intellectuals, and hoi polloi gathered for its restorative conditions and pleasure gardens. However, the Sydney Hotel did not enjoy great commercial success, and after many afterlives it eventually was acquired by the Holburne Museum in 1913. 

We were particularly interested to see the Holburne’s special exhibition on Gwen John (1867-1939), who was a London- and France-based Welsh artist known for her oil paintings and sketches. As she has mostly been known for her relationships with men artists, this exhibition provided a much-needed deep-dive into her work. Her warm and energetic sketches caught the attention of many, but the painting of her cat was the surefire hit. I was particularly interested in the new-to-me technique of mixing chalk dust into her oil paints to give it a matte texture. Her portraits, mostly of women, were incredibly compelling.

The museum also hosted another exhibition, Without Hands: The Art of Sarah Biffin. Sarah Biffin (1784-1804) was an accomplished miniaturist born in rural Somersetshire, her talent evident from a young age. Artistic opportunities in rural communities were few and far between, and even less so for a woman born without arms or legs such as Sarah. In early adulthood, around aged 20, she bound herself to a man named Mr Dukes who taught her painting. In exchange, she gave 'the whole of her time and exertions' while living with him. She travelled with his family to different county fairs, where an audience was charged by Mr Dukes to watch her paint using her mouth and shoulder. She was extremely popular, although the money she earnt never went directly to her.

Her fortunes changed when she found a patron in the Earl of Morton in 1810. She received formal instruction in miniature painting, which allowed her to grow her reputation as an artist. This allowed her to establish her own studio and lodgings in London. In 1821, she debuted at the Royal Academy of Arts, which marked the start of international fame in the art world. She herself was no longer the exhibition – at last, her work was taken seriously per se, and she began teaching as a professional artist. She received royal favour, but in her later life she found less success. She died in 1850 in Liverpool, a move precipitated by the decline of the miniature’s popularity. Her exhibition was particularly fascinating as it drew attention to a groundbreaking yet unknown artist, foregrounding material from her own life as well as her art. This fantastic exhibition, first established in 2022, was the first of her work in a century.

Gwendoline Choi