Tom Sutcliffe: Why I'll never be one of the hoard

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I don't know if there is an antonym to the word "collector" but if so, I'm one of them. I'm not a completist but a depletist, driving not towards a comprehensively inclusive assembly of stuff, but a soothingly exclusive one. The ideal end-state – never likely to be achieved because of a combination of indolence and betraying weakness (some objects just are sentimentally "sticky") – would be a room that had just three or four objects in it, each one of them unimpeachably beautiful or useful. And because of that, one of the first things I thought when visiting the recently reopened Holburne Museum in Bath was "Thank goodness all this stuff is here and not in my house". Because the Holburne, among many other things, is a song of praise to knick-knackery and bric-a-brac. It summons words that are themselves a polysyllabic clutter.

This isn't, I should say, any criticism of its design or its interior. I'm not entirely convinced by the ceramic exterior of the new extension to the building – a kind of lizardy mottle which I think is going to look decidedly odd and dated in just a few years. But the interior is gracious in the old sections of the building (once a resort hotel for Bath's 19th-century visitors) and nicely designed in the new ones, which seem properly knowing about profusion. There's a central area, showing off some of the highlights of Holburne's own collection, which has been arranged in a deliberately crowded way to give some evocation of the housemaid's nightmare which Sir William Holburne's own home turned into towards the end of his life. And there are some very fine display cases which appear to privilege quality over quantity in some areas of the collection.

There are, also, some highly covetable things here, even if my own personal taste flinches away from the majolica and the silverware (What, to be honest, would be the point in owning only one majolica plate? The collection is its only alibi). There are some good paintings – including a lovely Stubbs portrait and two fine Allan Ramsays – and a collection of stunning enamel miniatures. But even so, I'm not sure that there's any individual object here that would make you travel a long way unless you had a scholarly or specialist interest in the subject. What makes it worth the journey (and you really shouldn't miss it if you go to Bath) is the way that the entire museum enshrines the collector's instinct.

It's a nice touch that the very first show in the temporary exhibition space should be devoted to Peter Blake, a highly creative example of the acquisitive and magpie instincts of the collector. In one respect, his approach couldn't be more different to that of William Holburne. Where the latter gathered up precious objects, hampered only by the relative modesty of his budget, the former picks up items which have been cast aside and abandoned (often, I guess, by people like me). He then restores value to them, either by allowing them to form a kind of inanimate support group or by applying a criteria that makes them appear as if they're part of an elite (as in his very appealing collages of exclusively black-and-white objects). But you also suspect that the two men would have understood each other's fascination with stuff, and the desire to acquire more of it. You can imagine Holburne showing Blake one of his more fascinating treasures – a "micro-carving" in ivory which was produced, one suspects, as a "collectable" – and Blake pointing out the more curious details of his own assemblies.

And oddly the overall effect is almost enough to convert even a staunch depletist to the charms of collection. It certainly makes the case for the collecting instinct as a democratic and appealing one, an affectionate reaction to the productions of man which isn't haughty or stand-offish (collections can be prodigiously haughty and snobbish, of course, but this collection isn't one of them). It's an instinct dedicated – in contrast to a modernist creed of divestment and distillation – to the idea that more is more, and the more the merrier. Well, almost enough to convert as I say – but not quite. In someone else's house (or converted hotel) all this stuff, everywhere you look, is intriguing, interesting and delightful. Almost as delightful is the fact that you can leave it behind you when you walk out of the door.

A proposition for a stirring piece of academia

If there are any media students out there thrashing around for a suitable long essay or Master's thesis, might I suggest "The Dry Martini in Twentieth Century Art and Literature"? I'd be interested to read it, even if no one else would, given the curiously hallowed standing this cocktail has in certain plays and films. The thought struck me the other night while watching the Almeida's new production of Edward Albee's play A Delicate Balance – a work generously marinaded in alcohol, which also includes the mixing of a ferocious-looking dry Martini. Tim Piggott-Smith, who plays Tobias, sprinkles a few drops of vermouth into a jug full of ice and then adds half a bottle of gin. Various characters then absorb the shock of this liquid before uttering awed words of praise for its excellence. That's where the heart of the thesis lies, I think – in the way that a lethally efficient alcohol delivery system has been transformed into a ritual fraught with ideas of sophistication and fragile purity (the ease with which you can "ruin" a Martini cocktail is a widespread trope). Other relevant texts would include Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, the Bond books and, of course, Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It was Buñuel who suggested that the connoisseur's recipe for a really dry Martini was to allow a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of vermouth before it falls on the gin – a version he compared with the Immaculate Conception.

Time to seek out a neglected gem

Intriguing to see that Woody Allen, Ethan Coen and Elaine May are to join forces to produce a Broadway portmanteau play – consisting of three one-act comedies. The name that got the headlines in the press coverage of this project was Woody Allen, naturally. But the one that spiked my interest was Elaine May, the screenwriter for Primary Colours, Heaven Can Wait and the infamous Ishtar, which punched a nine-year hole in her writing CV. May made one of my favourite films ever – a brilliant 1971 comedy called A New Leaf, in which Walter Matthau played Henry, a jaded playboy running out of funds and May took the role of the geeky, botany-obsessed heiress whose fortune he hopes to marry into. "Oh, I'm so glad you found a nice suitable young lady," says Henry's valet when he announces his engagement. "She is not suitable," replies Matthau testily. "She's primitive. She has no spirit, no wit, no conversation and she has to be vacuumed every time she eats." His bride's clumsiness is also a running source of comedy. "Did you hurt yourself?" she asks, after yet another accident. "No," Matthau replies through gritted teeth, "Kneeling on glass is my favourite pastime. It keeps me from slouching." It's an unjustly neglected gem of Seventies American cinema.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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