Fitzwilliam Museum

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

The museum and art gallery of the University of Cambridge. It was founded in 1816 and is one of the oldest public museums in Great Britain. Like the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, it has been built up almost entirely from private benefactions. The founder, Richard Fitzwilliam, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam (1745–1816), was a highly cultured man, with a deep interest in literature and music as well as the visual arts. He never married and on his death he left his library (including 130 illuminated manuscripts) and art collection to the University of Cambridge (where he studied as a young man) ‘for the purpose of promoting the increase of learning and the other great objects of that noble Foundation’. His collection included Italian Renaissance paintings (among them a Titian and a Veronese) and the best representation of Rembrandt etchings then in England. He also left £100,000 for a building, which was begun in 1837 by George Basevi and continued by C. R. Cockerell after Basevi's death in 1845. It opened to the public in 1848, but the grand entrance hall (by E. M. Barry), with its magnificent staircase, was not finished until 1875. Subsequently there have been several extensions to the building. Among the bequests to the museum the most noteworthy after the founder's was that of Charles Brinsley Marlay (1831–1912), which enriched all departments. Among several distinguished directors the most famous was M. R. James (1862–1936), eminent medievalist and celebrated writer of ghost stories, who was in charge from 1893 to 1908. However, the most important administrator in the museum's history was his successor, Sir Sydney Cockerell (1867–1962), who was director from 1908 to 1937. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, he ‘transformed a dreary and ill-hung provincial gallery into one which set a new standard of excellence which was to influence museums all over the world. This he achieved by the skilful and uncrowded display of pictures against suitable backgrounds, and by the introduction of fine pieces of furniture, Persian rugs, and flowers provided and arranged by lady admirers, fired by his enthusiasm.’ In Cockerell's own words, ‘I found it a pigsty; I turned it into a palace’, and the Fitzwilliam has maintained the reputation he gave it as a pleasurable place to visit. Its collections are now extremely wide-ranging; the areas of greatest richness include Italian painting and Greek coins.

Subjects: Art.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.