The University of Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum

Pages 326-327

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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The Fitzwilliam Museum (fn. 1) was founded by Richard, Viscount Fitzwilliam (d. 1816), who bequeathed to the University his collections of paintings and etchings, his library, and £100,000 stock. The income from the stock was to provide a building, to support the necessary staff, and to meet the cost of subsequent purchases. (fn. 2) The collections were moved to Cambridge in 1816, and were placed in the old Perse Grammar School in Free School Lane, where they were accessible and where they remained until 1842. They were then moved to the east room of the Old Schools, which was at that time the University Library. (fn. 3) The Library Syndicate was unwilling to house them for long, and in 1848 they were moved to the present building in Trumpington Street, which at that date was still uncompleted. (fn. 4) The site for this building had been acquired in 1821, after many other sites had been considered, but after this acquisition nothing further was done until 1834, when the trustees of the Perse School requested the removal of the collections from their premises. (fn. 5) In 1835, as the result of a competition, (fn. 6) George Basevi was selected as the architect for the new building, and the first stone was laid by Gilbert Ainslie, Master of Pembroke and Vice-Chancellor, in 1837. (fn. 7)

The main northern block of the museum building, designed by Basevi, (fn. 8) is of two stories built of Portland stone, and stands back from the road behind a balustrade. The front has a portico of eight Corinthian columns, the order being continued on each side and flanked by advanced wings which enclose loggias, the whole supporting a cornice and pediment. The figures on the tympanum of the pediment were designed by Sir Charles Eastlake, P.R.A., and this and other sculptural embellishment was executed by W. G. Nicholl. (fn. 9) At Basevi's death in 1845 the building was not nearly complete, and the work was taken over by Charles Robert Cockerell. (fn. 10) By 1847 building had been suspended because of lack of funds, (fn. 11) and when it was resumed in 1870 Edward M. Barry, R.A., was appointed architect. Barry redesigned the entrance hall, from which two staircases lead down to the ground floor, and two up to the first floor. The building was completed in 1875, the whole having cost some £115,000. (fn. 12) A south wing of two floors was opened in 1924; (fn. 13) it is known as the Marlay Galleries after C. B. Marlay (d. 1912) whose bequest of pictures, £80,000, and property later sold for a further £10,000 is said to have been 'almost comparable with that of the founder'. At about the same time the Manuscript Room and Coin Room, at the south-west corner of the Marlay Galleries, were built through the munificence of W. N. McClean. (fn. 14) A further twostory extension, paid for by W. J., S. L., and Miss S. R. Courtauld, was added at the south end of the Marlay Galleries in 1931; (fn. 15) and the three Henderson Rooms and the Charrington Print Room at the south-west corner were opened in 1936. (fn. 16) All these additions were designed by the firm of A. Dunbar Smith & Cecil C. Brewer. (fn. 17) The Graham Robertson Room for drawings and water-colours, designed by Robert Atkinson & Partners, was opened in 1955.

The founder's collections comprised 144 paintings (including a Titian, a Veronese, and a Rembrandt), a set of etchings by Rembrandt and works by other important engravers, some 10,000 printed books, a collection of manuscripts and printed music, and 130 medieval illuminated manuscripts. (fn. 18) The size and scope of the museum's collections have been constantly extended, most markedly in the 20th century. The number of paintings and drawings was increased by 243 pictures, mostly of the Dutch and Flemish schools, which came to the Fitzwilliam under the will of Daniel Mesman (d. 1834). (fn. 19) From 1834 to 1848 they were exhibited at the Pitt Press. (fn. 20) Since then the collection has been enlarged notably by the bequest of the collection of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon in 1937, (fn. 21) by gifts from many donors, including John Ruskin (1861) and Charles Fairfax Murray (1908 and later), and by purchases: 15 early Italian paintings were bought from the Charles Butler collection in 1893, (fn. 22) £30,000 was given in 1948 by Lord Fairhaven for the purchase of English landscape paintings and drawings, (fn. 23) £15,000 was bequeathed by Sir Rowland Biffen (d. 1948) for the purchase of water-colours, (fn. 24) and by the end of 1953 purchases to the value of £23,000 had been made from the 'Friends of the Fitzwilliam' fund, which was started in 1909. (fn. 25) The museum's Print Room, which is one of the more important in Europe, contains the collection bequeathed by the founder, the collection of the Revd. Thomas Kerrich (bequeathed by his son, 1873), (fn. 26) the old University cabinet of prints (transferred from the University Library, 1876), (fn. 27) and gifts from John Charrington (d. 1939), Honorary Keeper of Prints. (fn. 28) The most notable additions to the manuscripts were the bequests of Frank McClean (d. 1904), (fn. 29) T. H. Riches (d. 1935), (fn. 30) and Viscount Lee of Fareham (d. 1947). The nucleus of the Egyptian and Near Eastern antiquities was the collection of marbles presented to the University by E. D. Clarke in 1803 and transferred to the Fitzwilliam from the University Library in 1865. Individual antiquities from Egypt had been given to the museum before this date, and in 1886 E. A. Wallis Budge began to build up the collection systematically. It was enriched by the bequest in 1953 of Sir Robert Greg's collection, (fn. 31) together with a large sum of money. It remains small, but is varied and representative. The Greek and Roman department of the museum was founded in 1850 when John Disney gave 83 pieces of antique sculpture. (fn. 32) It was enlarged in 1865 when Clarke's marbles were transferred to the museum, and outstanding among recent acquisitions was Charles Shannon's bequest of 1937. (fn. 33) The museum's collection of coins and medals originated in 1589 with Dr. Andrew Perne's bequest to the University of his cabinet of coins and seals. This cabinet was transferred from the University Library to the museum in 1856. (fn. 34) The series of ancient Greek coins, which ranks third in importance in the world, owes its present status to the purchase of Lt.-Col. W. M. Leake's collection in 1864, and to the benefactions of J. R. McClean in 1906 and 1912. (fn. 35) The collection of pottery and porcelain, which includes the Italian maiolica bequeathed by F. Leverton Harris in 1926 and good examples of Far Eastern and Islamic wares, became one of the best in England largely as a result of the bequest of J. W. L. Glaisher (d. 1928). (fn. 36) The departments of textiles and of arms and armour have been developed in the 20th century. (fn. 37) In the library the number of volumes from the founder's collection, mainly of an unspecialized character, but including a large number of music books, had by 1954 been more than doubled. The additions, for the most part, form a reference library of books on the history of art. (fn. 38) A bequest by Frank McClean (d. 1904) included more than 250 early printed books, (fn. 39) and the Marlay bequest also contained a number of finely printed and bound books.

The museum is in the charge of a Director, under the general control of the Syndics of the Museum, a body which includes the Vice-Chancellor or a deputy, the treasurer of the University, and eight others. (fn. 40) The first director of the museum was Sir Sidney Colvin (d. 1927), who was appointed in 1876 and resigned in 1883; (fn. 41) his successors have been Sir Charles Waldstein (later Walston) (1883–9, d. 1927); (fn. 42) John Henry Middleton (1889–92, d. 1896); (fn. 43) Montague Rhodes James (1893–1908, d. 1936); (fn. 44) Sir Sydney Cockerell (1908–37), of whom the ViceChancellor said in a valedictory address 'he has made the building the ideal of what a museum should be'; (fn. 45) Louis Colville Grey Clarke (1937–46); (fn. 46) and Carl Winter (since 1946). (fn. 47)

The Museum of Classical Archaeology, in Little St. Mary's Lane, was opened in 1884, as an extension of the Fitzwilliam Museum, but since 1911 it has been administered separately. (fn. 48)


  • 1. Thanks are due to Mr. L. A. Holder of the Fitzwilliam Museum for help in the compilation of this section. The museum possesses the following sources for its history: Reports of the Museum Syndicate from 1850 (also published in the Camb. Univ. Repr.); a volume of papers on the history of the museum presented by J. W. Clark, University Registrary, in 1897; other papers, largely since 1897, including brief papers prepared for the opening of the Marlay Galleries in 1924, the Courtauld Galleries in 1931, and the Henderson Room and the Charrington Print Room in 1936, and for the centenary of the museum building in 1948.
  • 2. J. W. Clark, Endowments Univ. Camb. (1904), 487–8, where the relevant part of Fitzwilliam's will is quoted.
  • 3. Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. iii. 200; this work quotes and cites many contemporary documents. For the University Library, see above, p. 317.
  • 4. Camb. Chron. 20 May 1848; the date is given as 1849 in Graham Com. Rep. [1559], p. 124, H.C. (1852–3), xliv.
  • 5. Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. iii. 200–2.
  • 6. For an unsuccessful design see plate facing p. 388.
  • 7. Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. iii. 204, 211.
  • 8. Ibid. 204 sqq., 219–20.
  • 9. R. Gunnis, Dict. Brit. Sculptors, 1660–1851, 271.
  • 10. Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. iii. 215.
  • 11. Graham Com. Rep. 125.
  • 12. Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. iii. 219–21.
  • 13. The Times, 19 June 1924, p. 16.
  • 14. Handbook to the Fitzwilliam Museum (2nd edn. 1954), 3.
  • 15. The Times, 6 June 1931, p. 5.
  • 16. Ibid. 10 June 1936, p. 18.
  • 17. Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954), 4.
  • 18. Ibid. 14, 23; D. W. Butcher, 'Departmental Libraries of Univ. of Camb.', Jnl. of Documentation, vii (1950), 230; M. R. James, Cat. MSS. in Fitzwilliam Mus. (1895), p. x.
  • 19. Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954), 14; Graham Com. Rep. 126, which describes the Mesman collection as containing 248 paintings and 33 drawings and prints.
  • 20. Clark, Endowments Univ. Camb. 488–9; Graham Com. Rep. 126.
  • 21. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1936–7, 934; this shows that although it was in fact Shannon who bequeathed the collection to the museum, he and Ricketts must be regarded as joint donors.
  • 22. Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954), 3, 14–15.
  • 23. The Times, 4 Feb. 1948, p. 2.
  • 24. Camb. Univ. Repr. 1949–50, 182; Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954), 4.
  • 25. Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954), 4.
  • 26. Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954) 25; D.N.B.
  • 27. The Times, 1 Dec. 1876, p. 10.
  • 28. Ibid. 6 June 1936, p. 8; 25 Feb. 1939, p. 14.
  • 29. See M. R. James, Cat. McClean MSS. in the Fitzwilliam Mus. (1912).
  • 30. Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954), 12.
  • 31. Ibid. 5, 8.
  • 32. Graham Com. Rep. 126.
  • 33. Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954), 8.
  • 34. Ibid. 11.
  • 35. Ibid.; Hist. Reg. Univ. Camb. . . . to 1910, ed. J. R. Tanner (1917), 226.
  • 36. Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954), 27.
  • 37. Ex inf. L. A. Holder, Senior Assistant Keeper at the museum.
  • 38. Jnl. of Documentation, vii. 230–1.
  • 39. Handbk. Fitzwilliam Mus. (1954), 42.
  • 40. Ibid.; cf. Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. vii. 199; Hist. Reg. Univ. Camb. 228.
  • 41. The Times, 3 Apr. 1876, p. 10; 12 Oct. 1883, p. 5; 12 May 1927, p. 18.
  • 42. Who Was Who, 1916–1928.
  • 43. D.N.B. (Supplement).
  • 44. Ibid. (1931–40).
  • 45. Who's Who (1956); Camb. Univ. Repr. 1937–8, 156.
  • 46. Who's Who (1956).
  • 47. Ibid.
  • 48. Hist. Reg. Univ. Camb. 229.