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OPAC: History of the Museum and its collections

History of the Museum and its collections

Contents

 

History

The Fitzwilliam Museum was described by the Standing Commission on Museums & Galleries in 1968 as "one of the greatest art collections of the nation and a monument of the first importance". It owes its foundation to Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion who, in 1816, bequeathed to the University of Cambridge his works of art and library, together with funds to house them, to further "the Increase of Learning and other great Objects of that Noble Foundation".

Fitzwilliam's bequest included 144 pictures, among them Dutch paintings he inherited through his maternal grandfather and the masterpieces by Titian, Veronese and Palma Vecchio he acquired at the Orléans sales in London. During a lifetime of collecting, he filled more than 500 folio albums with engravings, to form what has been described as "a vast assembly of prints by the most celebrated engravers, with a series of Rembrandt's etchings unsurpassed in England at that time". His library included 130 medieval manuscripts and a collection of autograph music by Handel, Purcell and other composers which has guaranteed the Museum a place of prominence among the music libraries of the world.

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In 1848 the Founder's Building, designed by George Basevi (1794-1845) and completed after his accidental death by C R Cockerell (1788-1863), opened to the public. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the collections have grown by gift, bequest and purchase; their history is a continuous one which traces the history of collecting in this country over the last two hundred years. If the Museum owed its foundation to a Grand Tourist, it went on to benefit from the shift of taste towards the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance for which the Gothic Revival of the nineteenth century was responsible. By the same token, many of the Museum's early twentieth century benefactors may be counted among the heirs to the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements. In recent years, the Museum's traditional base of support from alumni and private collectors has been augmented by generous provision from the National Art Collections Fund and other charitable organisations and public bodies, including H M Treasury (under the provision for the allocation to Museums of works of art accepted in lieu of capital taxes). Today, the Museum pursues a vigorous acquisitions policy as one aspect of its abiding commitment to hold the nation's "treasures in trust". The Standing Commission's view is both echoed and expanded by the University itself:

"The Fitzwilliam Museum is one of the greatest glories of the University of Cambridge. It is a museum of international stature, with unique collections most splendidly housed... Like the University itself, the Fitzwilliam Museum is part of the national heritage, but, much more, it is part of a living and continuing culture which it is our statutory duty to transmit".

Few museums in the world contain on a single site collections of such variety and depth. Writing in his Foreword to the catalogue of the exhibition for Treasures from the Fitzwilliam which toured the United States in 1989-90, the then Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, wrote that "like the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam addresses the history of culture in terms of the visual forms it has assumed, but it does so from the highly selective point of view of the collector connoisseur. Works of art have been taken into the collection not only for the historical information they reveal, but for their beauty, excellent quality, and rarity... It is a widely held opinion that the Fitzwilliam is the finest small museum in Europe".

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1. Antiquities

The Department of Antiquities is chiefly devoted to the art of the ancient civilisations from which our own culture is ultimately derived - Western Asiatic, Egyptian, Greek and Roman - from the beginnings of urban settlement down to the start of the Middle Ages (c.12,000 BC - 900 AD). John Disney's gift of Classical sculptures in 1850 and the purchase in 1864 of the Leake Collection of bronzes, vases, terracottas and gems from Greece and Italy were both landmarks, to which the bequest by Ricketts and Shannon in 1937 added a significant number of important objects. Although G B Belzoni's splendid gift to the University of the sarcophagus lid of Rameses III may be regarded as initiating the collection of Egyptian antiquities, it owes its present distinction (and international significance) to twentieth century benefactors, among whom R G Gayer-Anderson (1943) and Sir Robert Greg (1954) deserve to be singled out. Over the years, the Department of Antiquities has also benefited from the gifts of the Egypt Exploration Society, the British School of Archaeology in Egypt, the British School in Athens and the Cyprus Exploration Fund. Today, the department looks after more than 25,000 objects in a wide range of materials (including stone, terracotta, metal, glass, wood, bone and textiles). It is widely regarded as one of the finest collections in the country and is consulted regularly by scholars from all over the world.

Please note that this is a general description of this part of the collection
and all the items described here may not yet be available on OPAC.

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2. Applied Arts

The Department of Applied Arts contains some 18,500 objects from Europe, the Near East and the Far East. It owes its exceptional collections of English and Continental ceramics (9,780 items) largely to the infectious enthusiasm of James Whitbread Lee Glaisher (d.1928) and, for glass, to Donald Beves (d.1961). There are smaller, but choice collections of European arms and armour (much of it bequeathed by J S Henderson in 1933); Limoges enamels, English and Continental silver, jewellery and objets de vertu; furniture (including notable English clocks given and bequeathed by J Prestige); textiles (especially samplers) and fans, mainly the Messel-Rosse collection. The sculpture collection ranges from medieval ivories to works by contemporary artists. The bequest by Mrs Sherek in 1995 of the remainder of the Boscawen Collection of European bronzes not only re-unites that collection but in the opinion of at least one leading expert, transforms the Museum's holdings in that area. The Department's non-Western holdings include an excellent collection of Islamic rugs, pottery and glass, and from the Far East, it preserves fine examples of Chinese porcelain, bronzes and jade and textiles; Japanese ceramics, lacquer and sword furniture; and thanks to the gift of G St G M Gompertz in 1984, an important collection of Korean ceramics.

Please note that this is a general description of this part of the collection
and all the items described here may not yet be available on OPAC.

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3. Coins and Medals

The Department of Coins and Medals was initiated in 1856 when coins accumulated by the University were transferred from the Library to the Museum. The Greek coins, based on the cabinet of some 12,000 coins purchased from Lt Col W M Leake in 1864, and supplemented by the collections of J R McClean and others, are outstanding. The Department has major holdings of Roman and Oriental coins among which the imperial gold portrait pieces which were given by A W Young in 1936 are exceptional. The largest part of the collection outside the ancient series is that of Great Britain, from Celtic times to the present, and thanks to the deposit of Professor Philip Grierson's European coins and the acquisition of Christopher Blunt's British coins, its medieval collection is the most complete in existence. The Department also preserves numerous engraved gems and cameos and fine Italian and foreign medals from Pisanello onwards. The collection of English medals was enriched by the gifts of A W Young in 1936 and by the bequest of Miss M E Grimshaw's school medals in 1989. The department holds on deposit significant collections of both coins and medals which belong to several of the Cambridge Colleges. In all, there are some 160,000 items in its care.

Please note that this is a general description of this part of the collection
and all the items described here may not yet be available on OPAC.

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4. Manuscripts and Printed Books

The Founder's Bequest included 130 medieval manuscripts, all of them acquired between 1789 and 1815, and many of them of the highest quality. After that promising start, progress was desultory until the late nineteenth century, when the Museum benefited from the revival of interest in medieval art. In 1895, when M R James published his Descriptive Catalogue of Manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Museum, he launched an appeal to collectors which was answered by the magnificent bequest of 203 medieval manuscripts by Frank McClean in 1904, by Charles Fairfax Murray's gifts of thirty manuscripts in 1904-5 and by C B Marlay's bequest which included eighteen manuscripts and hundreds of cuttings. In all the collection now totals over 1,000 items.

The Founder's Library of about 10,000 volumes reflects the varied interests of a gentleman-scholar in the 18th Century. The majority of the books are housed in the room which C R Cockerell designed for them in 1848 where in addition to their practical use to scholars, they comprise an important, historical collection. The Music Collection contains over 1,400 volumes, including a large number of manuscripts, ranging from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book to scores by twentieth-century composers including Vaughan-Williams.

The manuscript of Keats' Ode to A Nightingale is perhaps the most famous literary autograph in the collection, which also includes works by Blake, Hardy, Housman, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne, Tennyson and Thompson. Letters, ledgers and sitter-books by artists are an especial interest, to which the recent acquisition of the extensive archives of Robersons, colourmen and artists' suppliers and the bequest of artists' manuals by Peter Bicknell (1995) has added further dimensions. Finally, when the former Secretary of the Kelmscott Press, Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, became Director in 1908, he saw to it that the Museum became a repository for the fine editions printed by virtually all of the English private presses of the early twentieth century. These bring the total of rare printed books in the collection to some 30,000 volumes, while autograph materials add up to some 52,000 items.

Please note that this is a general description of this part of the collection
and all the items described here may not yet be available on OPAC.

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5. Paintings, Drawings and Prints

The Founder's collection of paintings began with the Dutch and Flemish pictures he inherited from his maternal grandfather, Sir Mathew Decker, Bt, an Amsterdam merchant born in 1679. To these his most spectacular additions were among the nine paintings he bought from the Orléans collection: Titian's Venus, Cupid and the Lute-player, Palma Vecchio's Venus and Cupid and Veronese's Hermes, Herse and Aglauros. All three share the same princely provenance: (?) Rudolph II of Prague; Christina of Sweden, Ducs d'Orléans. In 1834, the collection was augmented by 243 pictures, mostly Dutch and Flemish, bequeathed by Daniel Mesman. (Outside London, the Fitzwilliam boasts the most comprehensive Collection of Dutch paintings in Britain). In 1893, the Museum purchased fifteen early Italian paintings from the Charles Butler collection among which three panels of saints, three-quarters length, painted c.1320 by Simone Martini are outstanding, to be rivalled in the same field only by Professor F Fuller's bequest in 1923 of two of the predella panels from Domenico Veneziano's St Lucy altarpiece. In 1908, Charles Fairfax Murray made the first of his gifts which included three early Gainsboroughs, three Hogarths, a Reynolds and, as a centenary gift in 1916, Titian's incomparable late painting for Philip II of Spain, of Tarquin and Lucretia. During the twentieth century, the Collection of French paintings has grown with important acquisitions by virtually all of the major artists, from Poussin and Claude to Degas, Monet, Cézanne and Matisse. The bequest by John Tillotson in 1984 of thirty-two paintings by Barbizon painters and, that of Dr McDonald in 1991 of a wide-ranging Collection of pictures, especially rich in decorative paintings from the eighteenth century, have further enriched the Museum's French holdings. In the later twentieth century, gifts and bequests are headed by Alistair Hunter's collection of art of the present century, including Picasso's Cubist Head of 1910 and the second Lord Fairhaven's comprehensive collection of flower paintings and drawings, which comprises over seventy oils, more than nine hundred individually mounted works on paper and forty-four volumes of drawings by Ehret, Redouté and others. Among drawings, the largest holding is British (approximately 5,600). It began with the Founder's nostalgic memories of Italy drawn by J R Cozens, augmented in the early years by George Romney's son, the Revd John Romney of St John's College, and at mid-century by John Ruskin who initiated the fine collection of Turner watercolours with the gift of twenty-five representative sheets. The bequests of J R Holliday in 1927, F H H Guillemard in 1933, Sir Frank Brangwyn in 1943 and T W Bacon in 1950, have strengthened it still further.

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The Museum's collection of Dutch drawings was transformed by the bequest of almost a thousand by Sir Bruce Ingram in 1963. Among the 627 Italian drawings, the gift of G T Clough in 1913 included sheets by Michelangelo and Raphael, and those bequeathed by a former Director, Louis C G Clarke, in 1960 provide some of the other highlights, by Leonardo, Correggio and Parmigianino. More recently, the benefaction of A S F Gow (1978) has added significantly to the later French drawings, which number 576. Mention should also be made of the 400 Indian and Persian miniatures, most of which were bequeathed by Manuk and Coles in 1948, representing a small but distinguished collection of the principal schools. By any standard, the Museum's collection of prints which began with the Founder's folios and was augmented in the nineteenth century by the transfer of prints from the University Library, is vast. It stands at upwards of 200,000 impressions and continues to grow at an impressive rate; since 1988, 3,064 prints have been accessioned, including a considerable number by American artists. We believe that the Fitzwilliam Museum is the only institution in this country apart from the British Museum to collect systematically in this area.

Please note that this is a general description of this part of the collection
and all the items described here may not yet be available on OPAC.

Related links:

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