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Portrait of Sir Sydney Cockerell by Francis Dodd

Francis Dodd, Sir Sydney Cockerell
Britain, 1937
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell (1867-1962)

The son of a coal merchant, Sir Sydney Cockerell was born in Brighton and educated at St Paul’s School in London. He first worked in the family business and then as secretary to William Morris and the Kelmscott Press. He later was also secretary to Wilfred Scawen Blunt and Henry Yates Thompson. Without a university degree, but well-connected in the literary world, Cockerell was appointed director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1908. He was to serve the museum for twenty-nine years. Energetic and visionary, Cockerell rehung crowded walls, introduced furniture and flowers into the galleries and improved accessibility by the skilled use of light. It was also during his tenure that the Marlay and Courtauld galleries were built. Cockerell later boasted, ‘I found a pigsty; I turned it into a palace’.

Important manuscripts, such as the Psalter and Hours of Isabelle of France and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, entered the museum under Cockerell’s directorship. The Hardy manuscript having been received as a gift from Hardy in 1911, Cockerell launched an impressive campaign to secure the Psalter and Hours of Isabelle of France in 1919. Once in the ownership of Charles V of France and later John Ruskin and Henry Yates Thompson, it was purchased with the support of T. H. Riches and other members of the university.

Panel of Damascus tilesInspired by developments in The Hague, Paris and Berlin, Cockerell also founded The Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1909, the first such society in Britain. Like the Art Fund, established as a national charity in 1903, the Friends helped to democratise collecting. Inscribed ‘Given by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam, 1909’ on the frame, the panel of Damascus tiles was one of the first items the Friends presented to the museum.

Knighted in 1934, Cockerell retired from the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1937, age 70. His wife, Kate, a manuscript illuminator, having long predeceased him, Cockerell died in Richmond, Surrey in 1962.


Selected Bibliography

W. Blunt, Cockerell: Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, Friend of John Ruskin and William Morris and Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1964

C. de Hamel, ‘Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts from the library of Sydney Carlyle Cockerell (1867-1962)’, British Library Journal, 13 (1987)

C. de Hamel, Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, New York, 2001

C. de Hamel, Sir Sydney Cockerell and Illuminated Manuscripts, Cambridge, 2004

S. Panayotova, ‘A Ruskinian Project with a Cockerellian Flavour’, The Book Collector, 54 (2005)

D. Webster Hawksley, ‘Sydney Carlyle Cockerell’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004-8

S. Panayotova, I Turned It Into a Palace, Sydney Cockerell and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 2008


Online exhibition 'I turned it into a palace' Sir Sydney Cockerell and the Fitzwilliam Museum

Podcast for the exhibition'I turned it into a palace'

Sydney Cockerell is included in the Gallery Trail leaflet Hidden Histories: Cambridge Collectors, available in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

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Panel of Damascus tiles

Panel of Damascus tiles, the frame inscribed ‘Given by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam, 1909’
Syria, 16th to 17th century
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The Psalter and Hours of Isabelle of France

Edmund Dulac, The Psalter and Hours of Isabelle of France: Solomon’s Coronation and David’s Burial
France, c. 1260
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
MS 300, fols 5v-6r