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William Martin Leake (1777-1860)

William Martin Leake's collection of Greek and Roman coins, gems, vases and bronzes was bought by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1864. The purchase was a landmark in the history and growth of the Museum since it was the first time that the Museum had bought a significant collection of any kind, as opposed to accepting gifts or bequests.

Marble bust of William Martin Leake by William Behnes, 1840. Fitzwilliam Museum, M.1-1865.

Leake was by training a soldier, not a scholar, and never studied at Cambridge or any other university. In the course of his army duties he travelled extensively in the Mediterranean area, especially in Greece, and from 1804 to 1810 he was entrusted with several delicate and often dangerous diplomatic missions in Greece and the Balkans, involving negotiations with the Ottoman empire. His was entrusted with persuading the Turks to support the British against Napolean and the French.

Leake retired from the army in 1823 having reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel. This left him free to devote himself to scholarship, especially ancient topography and history; his principal works are two long and learned accounts of his Travels in the Morea. He also produced an innovative catalogue of his coin collection, Numismata Hellenica, which was the first catalogue to arrange the collection by the states or cities where the coins were produced. Living in London, he frequented the meetings of learned societies such as the Royal Society and the Royal Numismatic Society. He was also a prolific contributor to journals.

One of Leake’s coin cabinets, still in use in the Fitzwilliam Museum today.

We do not have much information about how and where Leake formed his collections. Many of the coins appear to have been bought on the London market in the 1840s and 50s; some of the smaller vases were bought in Athens but the larger ones, said to have been found at Vulci, may have been acquired either in Italy or in London.

Objects from the Leake collection can be found throughout the Greece and Rome gallery, but many of Leake’s coins are in Showcase 7. For all the objects from the Leake collection click here.

Further reading

J.M. Wagstaff, 'Leake, William Martin (1777-1860)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

J.M. Wagstaff, ‘Colonel Leake’s collections: their formation and their acquisition by the University of Cambridge’, Journal of the History of Collections 24(3) (2012) pp. 327-336 (online access here).