Antiquities did not feature in the collection amassed by Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, the Founder of the Fitzwilliam Museum: his interests lay, rather, in paintings, drawings, prints and manuscripts. However, even before the Museum opened its doors to the public in 1848, various Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities had been donated, often by current or former members of the University.
The very first item to arrive was a Roman marble statue of Bes, donated by Abraham Edward Gregory, Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1818. Gifts of bronze vessels, lamps and terracotta figures followed, given by various individuals; and in 1835 the 'Pashley sarcophagus' was donated by Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm, in recognition of the part Robert Pashley, then a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, had played in its recovery and interpretation.
The University already possessed many Greek and Roman sculptures and inscriptions that had been brought to England by Edward Daniel Clarke, presented by him to the University and displayed in the vestibule of the University Library since 1803. These were transferred to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1865, where they joined the considerable collection of marble sculpture presented by John Disney in 1850. Other areas of the collection were also expanding at this time: a notable addition was the collection of Greek vases and Greek and Roman bronzes (and also coins) purchased by the Museum from the estate of William Martin Leake in 1864.
During the later part of the 19th century, the acquisition of plaster casts of famous monuments of ancient sculpture dominated the agenda - and the space available for antiquities - at the Fitzwilliam. The casts, numbering around 600, were finally moved out into their own purpose-built space in 1884, and now form the core of the Museum of Classical Archaeology. When the archaeologist and art historian Charles Walston became Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum (1883-9), all areas of the antiquities collections started to grow again, not just through gifts and purchases, but also through the distribution to the Fitzwilliam of material excavated by the Cyprus Exploration Fund, the Egypt Exploration Society, and the British School at Athens. Joining this in the early 20th century was excavation material from various sites on Crete and from the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia in Sparta. Objects from Walston's own excavations and collection arrived in the Fitzwilliam at various times in the twentieth century: among the latest but most significant of these is the marble 'Newton Hall Athena', allocated to the Museum in lieu of inheritance tax in 2006.
Sir Sydney Cockerell, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum from 1908 to 1937, was tireless in his efforts to develop all areas of the Museum's collections, including antiquities. In 1920 Dr Winifred Lamb accepted the post of Honorary Keeper of Antiquities at the Museum. In addition to recommending various purchases from Museum funds, she was generous in donating objects that she herself had acquired, and more were bequeathed to the Museum after her death in 1963. Among Cockerell's other friends were Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, artists, aesthetes and collectors. After the death of Charles Shannon in 1937, the Museum was bequeathed the large and choice collection that the pair had built up, including many fine examples of ancient painted vases, terracotta figures, bronzes and marble sculpture.
By the late 20th century, collectors of antiquities had become few in number. In 1984 the Fitzwilliam was able to purchase more than 100 Greek and Roman terracotta figurines from James Chesterman, but this may be the last major private collection to enter the Museum. Both collecting and acquiring antiquities is now strictly regulated. This is one result of the development of the science of archaeology, the increased recognition of the significance of the context of finds and the stricter enforcement of legislation forbidding the export of antiquities from their countries of origin.
‘Greece & Rome at the Fitzwilliam Museum’ (special issue of the Journal of the History of Collections, 24(3) (2012)).
Podcast about the Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition ‘I turned it into a palace’: Sir Sydney Cockerell and the Fitzwilliam Museum