skip to content

While Cockerell secured major donations and bequests, he had no funds for purchases on a comparable scale. In 1909 he founded the Society of Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Modelled on the Amis de Louvre, they were the first group of supporters established at a British art institution. Cockerell mobilised the local and national press to recruit members, both 'old Cambridge men' who 'may appreciate some link other than cricket or rowing' and current undergraduates who were advised that 'fortunate coups at Newmarket should result in benefactions.' Their annual subscriptions allowed the Director to strengthen the existing holdings, such as Turner's watercolours or the Greek vases, and to establish new collections, for instance of Blake's works and of Oriental ceramics. A century later the Friends continue to provide a strategic fund for Cockerell's successors. Their largest ever contribution was towards the purchase of the Macclesfield Psalter in 2005.

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

This panel of ten Damascus tiles was the very first object Cockerell acquired with the Friends' subscriptions. He bought it at Christie's on 26 February 1909 and brought it to the Fitzwilliam on 5 March. Staff, Syndics and Honorary Keepers gathered to admire the tiles. Cockerell was delighted and proud of the first purchase made with money he had raised himself. A tribute to William Morris and Wilfrid Blunt, the panel was a manifestation of Cockerell's strong taste for the arts and crafts of the East. It was two more decades before he managed to acquire two of William Morris's own panels of Damascus tiles. He bought them from William Morris's younger daughter, May, in 1928 and it was the Friends that provided the necessary sum.





Section from the Book of the Dead of Ramose papyrusSection from the Book of the Dead of Ramose papyrus

This papyrus was discovered by Flinders Petrie in one of the lesser-known cemeteries in Egypt, that of Sedment near the Fayum. One of the most important acquisitions made by the Friends, it contains the Book of the Dead, the celebrated Egyptian funerary text whose magical recitations offered the commissioner (in this case a man named Ramose) safe access to the afterlife. Cockerell purchased it on the advice of Frederick William Green, who had been appointed as his Assistant Director in December 1908, became the first Honorary Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities in 1910, and remained in this post until his death in 1949. The papyrus was in a precarious condition and Mr J.M. Edmunds of Jesus College was entrusted with its conservation. The following year Cockerell reported that Mr Edmunds had 'partially recovered many subjects,' but others may never be reconstructed because the scroll was fragmentary. Nevertheless, the high quality of execution and the vibrant pigments can be appreciated today as much as they were at the time of excavation, since most of the papyrus remained in storage until 2005 when a new conservation campaign began at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Spell 110 displayed here demonstrates the exceptional quality of the original painting and the success of the current conservation programme. It shows a large part of a spell in which Ramose states that he knew the names of the Seven Celestial Cows and the Bull of Heaven. The bull and the cows are illustrated to the right of the god Sokar. On their right are the four Rudders of Heaven, representing the four points of the compass, protected by wedjat-eyes. Beyond these, Ramose makes a series of recitations to twelve deities in shrines.


Cover of a gold cup (fragment)

Cover of a gold cup (fragment) Germany, late 12th or early  13th centuryCockerell was particularly interested in medieval secular objects. In 1921 the Friends secured this fragment of a gold cup, perhaps associated with a marriage judging from the seated couple holding flowers. It was said to have been found at Trier in 1795 and acquired by Johann Aloys Reichsfreiherr von Hügel. Cockerell bought it from his grandson, Baron Anatole von Hügel, curator of the Cambridge Museum of General and Local Archaeology, had it cleaned and restored, and showed it to Frederick Leverton Harris, an avid collector of antiques. As soon as he heard of the successful conservation and of the Director's passion for medieval objects, Leverton Harris offered a piece from his own collection, a thirteenth-century champlevé enamel gemellion from Limoges (displayed in Gallery 32). Cockerell invited him to join the Syndicate in 1922 and the very next year persuaded him to purchase, together with the Friends, three alabaster carvings from fifteenth-century Nottingham (displayed in Gallery 32).


Master Honoré (doc. 1289-1312)

Master Honoré (doc. 1289-1312) Two minatures from a copy of La Somme le roi Paris, c. 1290Master Honoré (doc. 1289-1312) Two minatures from a copy of La Somme le roi Paris, c. 1290


Compiled in 1279 for King Philippe III of France by the Dominican royal confessor Frère Laurent, La Somme le roi was a princely manual preoccupied with the fundamentals of Christian belief and moral edification. These miniatures belonged to a copy of La Somme le roi illuminated by the most celebrated artist in late thirteenth-century Paris, Master Honoré. The virtue of Equity is personified above its Old Testament analogue, Noah's Ark, while the corresponding vice, Felony, is exemplified by Cain murdering Abel and by men contending with sticks, separated by Moses. Crowned Chastity holds a bird (purity) and tramples on a hog (lust); the biblical example is Judith who triumphed over Holofernes. Uncrowned Luxury holds a manacle and a towel, and spits blood. Below, Joseph escapes the advances of Potiphar's lustful wife.

The top miniature (MS 192) was donated in 1892 by Samuel Sandars, a benefactor of the Fitzwilliam, Trinity College and the University Library. M.R. James published it in his 1895 catalogue of the Museum's manuscripts as part of a Psalter. In 1906 Cockerell identified it as the work of Master Honoré and associated it with La Somme le roi. He hoped that the whole manuscript might be re-discovered one day. When another leaf from it appeared on the market in July 1934, he could not resist and bought it from the Friends' Fund (MS 368). Four years later the rest of the volume resurfaced and was brought to Eric Millar, Cockerell's friend at the British Museum, where it is now Add. MS 54180. 'The study and collecting of medieval manuscripts has its thrills,' wrote Millar, 'but I do not personally expect to feel a greater one.'

Simon Bening (1483-1561)

These are three of the six miniatures at the Fitzwilliam which, together with many others now dispersed around the world, once embellished a sumptuous Book of Hours made for Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545), Archbishop and Elector of Mainz, primate of Germany, distinguished art collector and patron of Dürer, Cranach and Grünewald. He commissioned the manuscript from Simon Bening, the greatest Flemish illuminator of the sixteenth century, who lived in Bruges, but enjoyed an international clientele, including the ruling houses of Europe.

Cockerell knew the miniatures by 1908 when he borrowed them for his exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club from the Rev. Edward Samuel Dewick. Upon his death, Dewick bequeathed his two best manuscripts to the Fitzwilliam and Cockerell persuaded his son to sell these miniatures to the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum.


Simon Bening (1483-1561) The Annunciation, Bruges, c.1522Simon Bening (1483-1561), The Last  Judgment, c.1522 Simon Bening (1483-1561), The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Bruges c.1522

John Ruskin and William Turner

Cockerell used the Friends' subscriptions strategically, in combination with other funds, gifts and bequests, to develop important collections over time. He was determined to build on Ruskin's 1861 gift of twenty-five watercolours by Turner. Cockerell had fond memories of his visits to Brantwood and of Ruskin's rooms 'lined with Turner's finest watercolours.' The first Turner presented by the Friends was View on the Sussex coast, purchased in 1913. The last to be acquired during Cockerell's directorship was Heidelberg, bought in 1937. When Ruskin's heirs, Joan and Arthur Severn, sold some of his Turners at auction in 1931, Cockerell used the Friends' Fund to buy three of them, including Fortified pass, Val d'Aosta. In the meantime, Cockerell secured more Turners from a large number of benefactors, notably the Rev. E.S. Dewick who bequeathed Kirkstall Abbey and Christ Church, Oxford in 1917. He was also keen to add Ruskin's own drawings to the Fitzwilliam's collection. The Friends presented some of them, including Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice, which supplemented Turner's watercolours of Venice presented by Ruskin in 1861.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire, 1797Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fortified pass, Val d'Aosta, 1802

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Venice, calm at sunrise, 1840 John Ruskin (1819-1900) Riva degli Schiavoni, 1870