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You are in: What's On > Exhibitions & Displays > Conference > Introduction

Conference: Art, Academia, and the Trade

Sir Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962)
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
7 - 9 December 2008

Conference sponsored by Sam Fogg and AMARC

The conference's main objective is to explore the complex relationship between scholarship, the public display of art, private collecting, and the auction room in the early twentieth century.

Its aim is also to create a forum for the discussion of this relationship today, since it becomes ever more problematic and at the same time vital for the specialist study and public appreciation of art.

Sir Sydney Cockerell is one of the very few figures in the twentieth-century academic and art world that represent all of these spheres of activity to the full.

A close associate and disciple of John Ruskin and William Morris, Cockerell was instrumental in the formation of some of the greatest twentieth-century collections of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, both private and institutional, in England, North America, and Australia.

One of the leading manuscript scholars of the time, he was also the organiser of what still remains the largest manuscript exhibition ever (The Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1908).

This experience, combined with his world-class scholarship, intimate knowledge of the trade, and large network of friendships with leading intellectuals and private collectors, won him the Directorship of the Fitzwilliam Museum (1908 - 1937).

His vast knowledge and vigorous acquisition policy extended from medieval manuscripts and fine printed books to ancient Greek vases, Renaissance paintings, and literary autographs.

His ambitious building campaigns between the two World Wars and passion for opening up the Museum to students and the wide public had an enormous impact on the display and interpretation of art in museums and galleries in the early twentieth century, nationally and internationally.

Cockerell's initiatives in Cambridge will be discussed in the context of similar developments in Oxford and London, which culminated in the establishment of art history as an academic discipline in this country with the foundation of the Courtauld Institute in 1931.

In the same year and with the robust financial support of the same family, Cockerell opened the new Courtauld Galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Burlington Magazine praised them as ‘the most successful attempt as yet made in this country, and perhaps anywhere else, at reconciling architectural claims with those of showmanship and scholarship.'

It was this expertise that Cockerell ‘exported' to North America and Australia, as he advised the Boston Public Library and the Melbourne Museum and Gallery not only on acquisitions, but on design, public display, collections management and research as well. His advice had a profound impact on the future of art and research institutions in this country and abroad.