The Fitzwilliam Museum has one of the world’s great print collections, and one that is unique in character. Leaving aside the more specialist ‘decorative’ collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam’s print collection is the second largest and most important collection of ‘fine-art’ prints in the United Kingdom (behind the British Museum). The growth, development and use of the print collection have depended on the Fitzwilliam’s place within the University of Cambridge. This means that the Museum is ideally placed to take advantage of the scholarly and teaching potential of what is not only a treasure, but a local, national and international resource. Online access is the latest stage of developing that resource for the widest audience, to help fulfil the terms of Viscount Fitzwilliam’s founding bequest of his collection, which was intended for ‘the increase of learning’.
Works on paper are fragile and damaged by continual exposure to light. The department has an active policy of organising regularly changing exhibitions and displays from the collection throughout the year, supported by a related series of online resources. Visitors can access works not on display by appointment in the Graham Robertson Study Room.
From the outset the print collection was one of the chief glories of the Fitzwilliam. The collection of Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam (1745–1816), which he left to the University of Cambridge in order to found a museum, included 198 albums of prints, and four unbound portfolios, containing some 40,000 prints. Viscount Fitzwilliam’s collection of Rembrandt prints was considered one of the two best collections of his day, but he had much else besides. His collections of Netherlandish and early German prints, notably those by Dürer, were remarkably complete. He spent much time in Paris in the 1780s (he had a mistress there), thus affording him the opportunity to collect French prints in large number. Some of his albums derive from French aristocratic collections broken up at the time of the French Revolution. These albums still sit on the shelves in the Print Room of the Fitzwilliam today. Although the stars of the collection – the Rembrandts, the Dürers – have long since been mounted in separate mounts (mats) for ease of study and display, most of Fitzwilliam’s albums remain intact: a fabulously rare and precious document of an eighteenth-century print collection. Fitzwilliam himself carefully supervised the arrangement of the prints in these albums, mostly during the last years of his life, when he retired to his house in Richmond to devote himself to such tasks.
Since that Founding Bequest, the print collection has grown to around 180,000 prints. These have nearly all been acquired through the generosity of enlightened collectors and donors. The Rembrandt collection was further enhanced in the 1870s with the transfer to the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge University Library’s albums of prints. One of these albums contained a magnificent group of Rembrandts that may well have been in Britain since the seventheenth century; another contained one of the best collections anywhere of prints by Albrecht Altdorfer, including the extremely rare landscape and decorative etchings. The Dürer collection was strengthened by the addition of prints owned by another eighteenth-century collector, Thomas Kerrich (the Cambridge University Librarian), best known to print collectors and scholars because he wrote and published a pioneering catalogue raisonné of the prints after Marten van Heemskerck. His collection was bequeathed to the Fitzwilliam by his son, the Rev. Edward Kerrich, in 1873, together with a number of Blake’s illuminated books. Blake soon became a speciality of the Fitzwilliam, through the generosity most notably of T. H. Riches in the 1930s, and more recently the bequest of the great Blake scholar Sir Geoffrey Keynes, who died in 1985. To give an idea of the richness of the Blake collection, which started with Fitzwilliam’s copy of Young’s Night Thoughts, it now includes two complete copies (and numerous separate pulls) of The Songs of Innocence and Experience, and no fewer than three complete copies of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
John Charrington, a member of a wealthy local family of coal-merchants, not only donated his collection of portrait prints and bought for the Museum the world’s best collection of mezzotints after John Constable, but also endowed the Fitzwilliam with its own print room. In 1936, the print collection, which had hitherto resided alongside the books in the library, moved to the Charrington Print Room in a new suite of rooms alongside the painting galleries. The collection normally still remains there, bursting at the seams, although the lack of space dictates that prints are also kept in other available pockets of storage throughout the Museum. Since 1936 the collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century prints has continued to grow, with recent gifts transforming the holdings of the French Impressionists (through the bequest of A. S. F. Gow in 1978) and, to a lesser extent, the German Expressionist schools.
Throughout its history the Fitzwilliam has attempted to acquire recently published prints. Lord Fitzwilliam himself stuck newly made prints of the early nineteenth century into his albums. In 1918 the Museum received one of the portfolios of lithographs commissioned by the Ministry of Information from War Artists such as C. R. W. Nevinson. The director Sydney Cockerell, famous for his appearances at collectors’ deathbeds over the first few decades of the twentieth century, solicited important gifts of prints from contemporary printmakers, notably those of the British School. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Sainsbury family gave a fund specifically for the acquisition of contemporary prints, which resulted in a large number of acquisitions of British prints of this period. The policy of acquiring contemporary British prints is still pursued, albeit more sparingly with relatively smaller funds. Purchases and donations over the past few years have included prints by Frank Auerbach, Tracey Emin, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, Christopher LeBrun, Richard Long, Ian McKeever, Hughie O’Donoghue, Therese Oulton and Marc Quinn.
It was during Cockerell’s directorship that the first part of a substantial American print collection was formed: the collection of Whistlers. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the contemporary British collection was growing, the Fitzwilliam purchased its first few post-war American prints, notably examples by Rauschenberg and Motherwell. Fifteen years ago, the Fitzwilliam realised that there was a real danger that the broader picture of American printmaking would go relatively unrepresented in the collection. The stature, range, depth and influence of printmaking in America in the last century was increasingly apparent, but the means, and the curatorial time, to go out and buy a collection of American prints was sadly lacking. A few holes were plugged – three prints by Martin Lewis were purchased, for instance – but it became more and more obvious that something dramatic had to be done. The answer came with the appointment of Reba and Dave Williams as Honorary Keepers of American Prints. They brought to the Fitzwilliam not only an unusual generosity of spirit, but a source of vital scholarly expertise on American prints not otherwise to be found in Cambridge. Within a few years, through a number of generous donors, a collection was formed, adding some star names, such as Roy Lichtenstein, and a large number of the lesser lights that make up the firmament of American printmaking from the nineteenth century up to the present day. The Museum has since developed this collection with purchases of prints by George Bellows and Andy Warhol, and through projects such as an exhibition investigating the mezzotints of Craig McPherson.
It is unusual to have combined in one department a Western print collection of such size and quality, and a notable Japanese print collection (normally this would be found in a separate Oriental department, although there is a companionable exception at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam). The Fitzwilliam Museum started collecting Japanese woodcuts in 1896. As it grew in the succeeding decades, the character of the collection was shaped by the tastes of Western private collectors of the time, notably through the donations of T. H. Riches (who also donated Blakes) in 1913, the Oscar Raphael Bequest of 1946, and the H. S. Reitlinger Bequest received in 1991.
The strengths of these collections were fine impressions of landscapes by Hokusai and Hiroshige, and late eighteenth-century figure prints of Utamaro and his immediate predecessors and contemporaries. The collection was further enriched by a number of purchases made by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam, most spectacularly the unique surviving set of Utamaro’s Chushingura set from the collection of Edmond de Goncourt. Recent purchases have strengthened the collection of later prints from the end of the Edo and the Meiji periods, including the remarkable collections of Kunisada’s kabuki actor portraits and prints by Yoshitoshi acquired with the help of the National Art Collections Fund.
John Charrington was the Fitzwilliam Museum’s first ‘Honorary Keeper of Prints’, a title most recently bestowed on David Alexander, with special responsibility for British prints. However, the title of Honorary Keeper has never been a mere honorific. In Charrington’s day, the Museum had no professional curators, only a director and a librarian. After the opening of the Charrington Print Room, an assistant was charged with attending to the daily care of the collection and helping the Honorary Keeper with cataloguing the prints. Notable amongst the Honorary Keepers of Prints were Campbell Dodgson, formerly Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and Louis Clarke, a former Director of the Fitzwilliam. Today, besides the Honorary Keepers, there is still only one permanent curatorial member of staff devoted to the print collection (Western and Japanese), with a research assistant currently appointed to enter prints on the database.