The fine collection of Sir Thomas William Holbourne (1793-1874) must always have been constrained within its building. His collection full of treasures including porcelain, silver, glass and bronzes plus paintings by Gainsborough, Guardi, Stubbs, Zophany and others became Bath’s first art gallery when the collection was donated to the people of Bath and, in 1916, it was housed in the fine neclassical building which was formerly the Sydney Hotel and terminates Great Pulteney Street as it leads into the Sydney Gardens, the only remaining 18th century pleasure gardens in England. The collection has also increased in size with the addition of other donations and purchases to fill gaps within it.
When you walk through the original Sydney hotel building today, you do realise how small it is and how much an extension was needed to provide the expected café and shop and also galleries with controlled environmental conditions for special exhibitions.
Shock, horror, the designs for the new extension were unashamedly modern, a contemporary ceramic and glass pavilion seen as complimenting the original building, not, as many would have liked, a building in Bath stone with neoclassical detailing. Thank goodness for that – as you walk around Bath you see some unfortunate buildings from the 1970′s and 80′s in stripped neoclassical style and clad in Bath stone, but they are compromised and have little architectural merit.
Not unexpectedly, there was considerable local opposition – this in a city which had once been the pinnacle of fashion and good taste and it took a good over a year to obtain planning permission. The building with its new extension finally opened in 2011 and, while today, there are no doubt some who still dislike it, it does provide a good contemporary response to the parkland, giving views out, particularly at ground level, but also from the galleries above, with materials which have weathered well, and will continue to do so, with a popular outdoor café area running into the gardens.