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Founding the Fitzwilliam

In his will, Richard Fitzwilliam (1745–1816)—the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion—left his extensive collection of artworks and objects, along with his library and an enormous sum of £100,000 to the University of Cambridge. After his death in 1816, this bequest funded the building of the Museum which was named in his memory and continues to support the Fitzwilliam today.

A former student of Cambridge’s Trinity Hall College, the Viscount was a passionate and educated collector. During his lifetime he collected an extensive array of paintings, drawings and etchings by Europe’s most renowned artists and maintained a particular interest in literary and musical manuscripts. His library contained 130 medieval manuscripts and music autographed by celebrated composers such as George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell.

Fitzwilliam felt strongly that the University should have its own museum—as a place to display works of art, but also with its own library. He left enough money in his will to build one of the most impressive museums of its day that he hoped would be a place of learning.

A significant part of Fitzwilliam’s riches came from the wealth his grandfather—Sir Matthew Decker (1679–1749)—amassed in part through the transatlantic trade of enslaved African people. Decker was a Dutch-born English merchant who helped to establish the South Sea Company in 1711. The South Sea Company obtained the monopoly to traffic African people to the colonial Spanish Americas and profited from slave-trading.

Like his grandson, Decker was also a collector. Many of the Dutch paintings he bought were inherited by Fitzwilliam and subsequently left to the University amongst a total of 144 pictures that also included masterpieces by Italian renaissance painters Titian, Paolo Veronese and Palma Vecchio. The profits from the slave trade that flowed through Fitzwilliam’s family shaped our founding collection. The wealth and prestige generated by enslavement allowed Fitzwilliam—his grandfather before him, and the University of Cambridge after—to gather objects, art and materials from across the globe to expand their collections.

Part of our work today is focussing on ways to address this legacy, including through exhibitions and interventions such as Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance. We at the Fitzwilliam Museum and other University of Cambridge Museums acknowledge we still benefit from Atlantic enslavement in terms of our finances and collections and are making a commitment to reparative justice.

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