Picture Galleries outside London: The Bath and Bristol Galleries
Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review
The Victoria and the Holburne galleries in Bath face each other across the long mock-Palladian monotonies of Great Pulteney Street, with its intervening fountain, the spray of which is often augmented by the rain which drifts upon the lovely, melancholy city from its encircling hills.
One ascends the stairs of the Victoria Civic Gallery, hung with views, not all inept, by local patriots, to its supreme treasure, The Adoration of the Kings, convincingly attributed to Hugo van der Goes. The Virgin's childish face looks perplexed as she unswathes her son like a fragile miniature for the contemplation of her visitors. The donkey and the ox, diffident outsiders, avert their heads. Whilst the kings present their gifts with naive eagerness, the camels from which they have dismounted delicately paw a distant Flemish hillside. Still more exotic is Isaac van Oosten's Garden of Eden, in which a crocodile mildly converses with an ostrich in a distinctly Netherlandish Paradise.
An eighteenth-century curiosity is Smugglers Landing in a Storm, by Jacques de Louthenbourg, whose experiments with illuminated transparencies whilst stage-painter to David Garrick influenced Gainsborough's methods as a landscape painter. The picture is, as one would expect, dramatic, but not incredibly so in its drench of waves, heaped with fog, under the quicksilver light of the storm. Louthenbourg's mere histrionics become outright hyperbole in Francis Danby's Sixth Seal of the Apocalypse, the 'lamentable comedy' of an overdone Armageddon in a flaming ocean ripped with thunderbolts and girt with tumbling precipices. For a while after his arrival from Ireland in about 1816, Danby was content to paint verdant but commonplace local scenes, but then decided to outdo John Martin in bombast, and succeeded in that aim. Out of a shared love of excess William Beckford, though usually an expert judge of pictures, bought a replica of The Sixth Seal for his collection at Fonthill.
The galleries at Bath have between them four dubious, perfunctory or collaborative portraits which Gainsborough gave his name to: examples of the spate of portraits he was hard-pressed to finish during his residence in Bath by what he called 'the continual hurry of one fool upon the back of another'. By the time he left Bath in 1774, he had already called to his aid his nephew Gainsborough Dupont as his assistant and probably his collaborator. Gainsborough longed to paint landscapes with the freedom of his favourite masters, Cuyp, Berchem and Ruisdael, but, in the words of a friend, was 'so disgusted with the blind pretence paid to his powers of portraiture' at Bath that he kept his landscapes, which he could not sell, in the back rooms of his house in the Circus. Gainsborough himself deplored 'the People with their damn'd Faces' who would not leave him alone. His impatience may be deduced from the vapid portrait in the Victoria Gallery of a Georgian squire, Sir Thomas Rombold, elaborately posed with his son against a tree more prepossessing than either. Greuze's overposed Head of a Young Girl contrasts with the severe honesty of the portrait of Catherine the Great, attributed to Rosalba Carriera, in which Catherine's imperious porcine face is tricked out in incongruous baubles.
The Victoria Gallery, although sparse in pictures of more than local interest, is well managed; whilst the Holburne Gallery, though a little wider in range, appears to be scarcely managed at all and has been encroached upon by a tea-shop and a local crafts centre. Combined, the pictures from the two galleries would make a substantial collection under the superior administration of the Victoria Gallery. The haphazard purchases of the Scottish laird, Sir William Holburne, bequeathed in 1882, are confusedly housed in a grand eighteenth-century villa, too big for what it contains. What are worth seeing there are a Stubbs, a Zoffany and (although they are badly hung and subjectively selected) some of Holburne's Netherlandish pictures. …