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A Century of Giving

A celebration of the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum


Islamic Tile Panel

Panel of ten tiles
Damascus, late 16th or early 17th century.
First acquisition with support from the Friends of The Fitzwilliam Museum

This online exhibition - marking the centenary of the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum - highlights the contribution they have made to the collections through their sustained generosity.

The Friends were founded in 1909 by the Museum's charismatic and far-sighted Director, Sir Sydney Cockerell. Soon after his appointment, he brought attention to the chronic shortage of money which prevented the Fitzwilliam from competing with other international museums in what he called the 'scramble for the first-rate works of art'.

The Friends were founded primarily to rectify this financial situation. Their annual subscriptions were to be used, 'at the Director's own discretion', to make on-the-spot purchases and take advantage of market opportunities. The Friends' fund is still used today exactly as Cockerell intended.

detail from the Macclesfield Psalter

Detail from the Macclesfield Psalter - the snail combat
Folio 76 (recto)
The Fitzwilliam Museum
MS 1-2005

Over the years, this money has enriched the collections in a wide variety of ways: from small, relatively humble purchases, to contributions towards large and costly 'treasures'; as 'seed-corn' to launch public appeals and make approaches to large fund-raising bodies; to pay for cleaning and repair, or to enhance the displays with new frames, cases and stands.

Every department in the Fitzwilliam Museum has benefited from the generosity of its Friends. From the first purchase - a panel of 17th century Islamic tiles - to more recent acquisitions, such as etchings by Picasso, or the Macclesfield Psalter, this strategic fund has helped the Fitzwilliam transform itself into the rich, world class collection visitors see today.

Exterior of the Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum

This on-line exhibition showcases a selection of the objects acquired since 1909 with the Friends' assistance. Its four sections correspond to the main phases in the Museum's development under successive directors. We can see how these objects reflected the taste and predilections of individual directors and their expert staff - as well as their concerns for the Museum and collections as a whole.

Although it's not possible to include every such object (numbering over 1,800 items) it's hoped this selection will enable people to appreciate the diversity of ways in which the Friends have contributed to the extraordinary evolution of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Section One: 1909-1937

Section Two: 1937-1967

Section Three: 1967-1990

Section Four: 1990-2008


Text: Sarah Baylis

Images: Fitzwilliam Museum photographic department