Beginning with a large bequest in 1816 and opening to the public in 1848, the neo-classical Fitzwilliam Museum, designed by George Basevi, is a real jewel in the crown of Cambridge. With a beautifully ornate and grand entrance, this museum instantly sweeps you away into times gone by, making you forget the hustle and bustle of the city’s bicycle-dotted streets outside and transporting you into an extraordinary world of truly unforgettable masterpieces. Living in Cambridgeshire and having grown up visiting the Fitzwilliam over the years, I have greatly enjoyed sharing its stories with both visiting and local loved ones. Whilst comparable to the impressive Ashmolean in Oxford as the principal museum of the University of Cambridge, an exploration of this magnificent museum in its entirety would be a difficult undertaking. I will therefore briefly consider three of my favourite items from the extensive collection.
The ‘Study for A Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte: couple walking’ is an essential port of call on my visits to the Fitzwilliam and one cannot help but feel the frenetic energy of the pointillism in this striking piece. It has become an almost ritualised behaviour to visit this painting and pay my respects to one of my favourite artists. Despite Georges-Pierre Seurat’s acclaimed ‘A Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte’ (1884-6) residing at The Art Institute in Chicago, the discovery of this oil on canvas large-scale study means I am no longer required to cross the Atlantic to catch a glimpse of these leisured Parisians. From Chicago to Cambridge, Seurat’s work unites these two locations in the quest of art lovers for brilliantly luminous artistry. For a visual of the study, please visit the Fitzwilliam’s summary of the French Impressionists here: https://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/frenchimpressionists/seurat/studyforasunday.
‘The Sandwich Marble’, so-called because John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich brought it to England in 1739, is an inscription on marble stone from 400-301 BC. Aside from its imposing size and detail, what is most exciting for me is its connection to the Montagu family, who resided at Hinchingbrooke House in Huntingdon, which was also home to my Sixth Form. This Earl was supposedly responsible for the invention of the sandwich, which proved to be a point of great interest on the public guided tours I gave of the House. Stumbling upon a familiar link in the unfamiliar historical territory of Classical Greece was somewhat satisfying and generates questions around the context of John Montagu bringing this item to England and the labelling attached to it. To view this object on the Fitzwilliam’s Collections Explorer, please click here: https://webapps.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/explorer/index.php?oid=160174 or learn more about ‘The Sandwich Marble’ in this paper: https://www.atticinscriptions.com/papers/aiuk-3/.
A titan of landscape painting, Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto) is responsible for several paintings on display at the Fitzwilliam, including the ‘View of the Grand Canal: Santa Maria della Salute and the Dogana from Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo’ from the early 1730s which is amusingly similar to a photographic canvas of Venice we have on the wall at home (from the ancient 2010s). Often poised between the real and the imaginary, the authenticity of what Canaletto depicted is perhaps up for debate, but his mastery of the brush is certainly not. It is for this reason that I usually seek out Canaletto’s works wherever I go to marvel at their delicate intricacy. Please find an image of this work and further information in the following link: https://webapps.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/explorer/index.php?qu=Category:painting&oid=907.
From sketching a decorative gallery bench for my Art GCSE to enjoying its exhibition spaces and wonderfully ambient Courtyard Café, the Fitzwilliam has played host to some of my fondest and most magical museum memories. The strangely comforting, periodically musty aromas, an excitingly elevated, sumptuous balconied gallery and striking sculptures contribute to the character of this much-beloved university museum. However, what now endears me most to the Fitzwilliam is its promotion of accessibility to a wide range of audiences in an environment of immense grandeur. With free admission to the Museum’s collections and exhibitions and only closing on Mondays, Good Friday, 24th-26th and 31st December and 1st January, all are welcomed through its doors. The Fitzwilliam’s special map for kids, downloadable digital guide and presence on England’s Historic Cities App is proof that they understand visitor needs and have embraced new technologies to make each visit a unique, educational and stimulating one.
If the wind ever takes you to Cambridge, be sure to pay a visit to The Fitzwilliam Museum, and discover more about this special place here: https://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk.
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Lucy Inskip is a BA History graduate from Oriel College, the University of Oxford. She is currently a Temporary Communications Assistant at The Heritage Alliance in London, was previously a Curatorial Intern at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and has also volunteered at a variety of heritage sites. In October 2019, Chatsworth House published her article about elite female travel in the late eighteenth century on their website: https://www.chatsworth.org/news-media/news-blogs-press-releases/lady-elizabeth-foster-like-bursting-cannons-boiling-water/. She is also particularly active on her heritage-focused Twitter account: @lucyskippin.