Brief History of the Friends


Image["Hand-coloured postcard of the Fitzwilliam Museum"]

The Fitzwilliam Museum
hand-coloured postcard

The Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum was founded in 1909 by Sir Sydney Cockerell, Director from 1908-1937. It was the first such organisation to be established in this country.

During his dynamic directorship - with the help of many wealthy friends, benefactors, collectors and patrons - Cockerell greatly enriched the Museum collections, and more than doubled its size.

Image["Sydney Cockerell in the Manuscript Room 1933"]

Sydney Cockerell in the Manuscript Room in 1933

From the start, Cockerell was frustrated by the Fitzwilliam's constitution as a university museum. He could not spend money without the authorisation of the Syndicate, which met infrequently, preventing him from making spontaneous purchases. The only funds available were 'absurdly inadequate' for any major acquisitions.

Inspired by the example of Les Amis du Louvre, already instituted in Paris, Cockerell set about founding an equivalent 'Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum'. With characteristic, forthright zeal, he approached rich and influential Cambridge residents and used the press to encourage alumni, undergraduates, and other visitors to become loyal subscribers. He made it clear that their subscriptions were to provide a purchase fund over which the Director himself would have absolute control.

Image["17th century tile panel, Damascus"]

Panel of ten tiles
Damascus, late 16th or early 17th century

Among the first Friends were many distinguished local people, including members of the Darwin family, undergraduates like Geoffrey Keynes (brother of John Maynard Keynes), Rupert Brooke, and the novelist Ronald Firbank, as well as Fellows and Heads of Colleges. From the start, there were also many members unconnected with the University itself and, in time, this support base widened to include American millionaires and English aristocrats. From an initial 35 subscribers, by Cockerell's retirement, the number of Friends had increased to around 300.

Cockerell's very first purchase from the Friends' first year of subscriptions (a total of £ 116 18s) was a panel of Islamic tiles of c.1600, costing 42 guineas. Cockerell was extremely proud of this acquisition: it reflected his own taste for the arts and crafts of the near East, and the all-pervasive influence of his friend William Morris, for whom he had once worked.


The fund Cockerell established a century ago has enabled successive directors to make hundreds of acquisitions, large and small, ancient and modern, across all styles, periods, and media.

Image["Image of the print Dreams & Lies of Franco by Picasso"]

Print from the portfolio Dreams & Lies of Franco by Pablo Picasso, given in 2008 by The Friends of The Fitzwilliam Museum with the help of the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund

The Friends have in fact played a vital, sustained role in the gradual enrichment of the Fitzwilliam Museum and in its evolution from a relatively small, university department into a distinctive world-class collection. This support was particularly important during the War and post-War years, when museum fundraising was still undeveloped. Although prices have escalated greatly since the early 20th century, the Friends still provide a basis on which the Museum can apply for major purchase grants.

Today, this group of 'dedicated ambassadors' has more than 2,000 members. The initiative taken by Sydney Cockerell back in 1909 has also become big business. All over the world, institutions such as cathedrals, hospitals, historic houses and theatres, are sustained with the financial and practical support of Friends' organisations.


The significant contribution made by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam can be seen in the illustrated lists of some of the works acquired with their assistance.

A more detailed exhibition on this website A Century of Giving also highlights some of the many, wide-ranging acquisitions made with their generous assistance since 1909.


The Fitzwilliam Museum : Brief History of the Friends

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