A Century of Giving
Section One: 1909-1937
From pig-stye to palace: Sydney Cockerell and the transformation of the Fitzwilliam
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.
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'.
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.
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.