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You are in: Online Resources > Online Exhibitions > Friends Exhibition > 1909-1937

A Century of Giving

Section One: 1909-1937

From pig-stye to palace: Sydney Cockerell and the transformation of the Fitzwilliam

Photograph of Sydney Cockerell

Sydney Cockerell in the Manuscript Room in 1933

No individual (with the exception of the Founder himself) has done more to shape the Fitzwilliam Museum than Sir Sydney Cockerell. During his 29-year directorship, (1908-1937) he transformed the Fitzwilliam from an exclusive gallery, with a cluttered and miscellaneous collection, into a model public art institution 'open to all the world'. He also introduced furniture, ceramics, rugs, and fresh flowers into the galleries, creating the distinctive 'country house' atmosphere visitors still experience today.

Photograph of the Fitzwilliam Museum

Gallery 3 19th Century

Photograph of the Fitzwilliam Museum

Gallery 7 1930s

Cockerell combined an exceptional talent for friendship with a ruthless business sense. Through a series of loans, gifts and bequests, extracted from a succession of wealthy benefactors, he increased and enriched every aspect of the Museum's collections. The funds for the Marlay Wing, Courtauld Galleries, Charrington Print Room and Armoury - new buildings which effectively doubled the Museum's size - were provided by individual benefactors whose personal friendship Cockerell had cultivated. His fund-raising methods were sometimes brutally direct. A friend called him 'a scrounger of genius'.

Isnik Mug

Isnik Mug fritware
mid 16th century
Fitzwilliam Museum

Using the expertise of Honorary Keepers, appointed for the first time, Cockerell built on the existing strengths of the Fitzwilliam's holdings: its illuminated manuscripts, prints, paintings, music and rare books. He also established entirely new categories of objects: European and Oriental pottery, Japanese prints, fine press editions, literary portraits and autograph manuscripts. A devout disciple of John Ruskin and William Morris - he enriched the British collections with many works by the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers. Many drawings and watercolours were also acquired during this time.

Millais, Mrs Coventry Patmore

J. E. Millais
Mrs Coventry Patmore

oil on panel, 1851
Fitzwilliam Museum

Rossetti, Morning Music

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Morning Music

watercolour & bodycolour, 1864
Fitzwilliam Museum

Throughout Cockerell's directorship, sustained financial support from the Friends, which he had founded in 1909, was crucial to his success. Relentless to the end, he continued to recruit a steady flow of wealthy subscribers - including British aristocrats, American businessmen and members of the royal family. By the time he retired in 1937, the Friends had given the Museum a sum equivalent to more than £417,000 in today's money.


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click on images below for information about each exhibit

Red figure eye cup

Red figure eye cup by Nikosthene painter
Athenian, c.500BC

Fragment of secular cup

Fragment of a gold secular cup
Germany, early 13th century

Chinese ridge tile

Chinese ridge tile
Ming Dynasty (c.1368-1644)

William Blake, Death on a Pale Horse

William Blake
Death on a Pale Horse


Book of the Dead of Ramose

Book of the Dead of Ramose
Egypt, New Kingdom
Vignette from Spell 95, for being in the presence of Thoth

J.M.W. Turner, Heidelberg

J.M.W. Turner Heidelberg

Burne-Jones, preliminary sketch for Works of Chaucer

Edward Burne-Jones, preliminary sketch for The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer

Master Honore, La Somme le roi

Master Honoré: Leaf from a copy of La Somme le roi