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March 2017 Meeting Report

The Fitzwilliam Museum 1816-2017 by Miranda Stearn

If you have not visited the Fitzwilliam Museum in Trumpington Street, the first thing you should know is that it is free. It was founded to house the collections of Richard, the seventh Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion. He was born in Richmond and owned estates in Ireland and studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, which gave him a lasting link with the town.

He had a passion for music and studied in Paris where, when he was 30 he had an affair with a 15 year old ballet dancer with whom he had 3 children although one, a girl, died. Letters between them ended in 1790's in the midst of the French Revolution, so no more is known about them.

Being a single man in possession of a considerable fortune he became a big collector of paintings, prints, etc. In 1816 he bequeathed his art collection and £1000 for a museum in Cambridge. This was before the National Gallery was founded. Before the museum could be built, his collection needed a temporary home, and the Perse School was used for this.

A competition for the design of the museum was won by George Basevi, who had been a student of Sir John Soane. The building was started in 1837, but George Basevi died from a fall at Ely Cathedral, so C R Cockerell completed the building.

Although it is a University Museum, it is freely open to all. There are five sections to the museum.

  1. Paintings - oils, watercolours etc
  2. Antiquities - Greek vases etc.
  3. Coins and medals
  4. Manuscripts and books
  5. Furniture, Armour, Ceramics
The Hamilton Kerr Institute at Whittlesford is also a department of the museum devoted to the restoration of paintings.

Sydney Cockerill, the second director, created the Friends of the museum, and their subscriptions provided money for purchase of items to add to the collections and also new buildings. These supplement the many gifts and bequests the museum receives, not to mention items contributed by H M Treasury received in lieu of capital taxes.  The Marley and Courtauld Galleries were added before the Second World War, during which many of the exhibits were moved to Gredinton House, Shropshire for safety.

Carl Winter was the director from 1945-66 and during his time a cafe and education studio were created.  Miranda has been the Education Officer since 2004 and is managing visits to the museum of some 1600 children per year.

The Fitzwilliam is now one of the nine University of Cambridge Museums Consortium, and its current exhibition is titled Madonnas and Miracles, which we are all encouraged to visit to "Peer through the keyhole of the Italian Renaissance home and discover a hidden world of religious devotion. Bringing together a wealth of objects, including jewellery, ceramics, books, sculptures and paintings, the exhibition invites us into a domestic sphere that was charged with spiritual significance".
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