In 1816, the University of Cambridge acquired an extensive collection of artworks and objects as well as a library which had been left to them by Richard Fitzwilliam (1745–1816), the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion. As a former student of Cambridge’s Trinity Hall College, Fitzwilliam believed that the University should have its own museum and made provisions in his will to donate his collection as well as an enormous sum of money, £100,000, to build an impressive new museum building to house it.
A temporary space was found at first, which has since become the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. But in 1821, a permanent site on Trumpington Street in Cambridge—where the museum still stands today—was purchased from the University’s Peterhouse college for £8,500. In 1834, British architect George Basevi (1794–1845) won a competition to construct the museum with his neo-classical design—a popular style at the time, inspired by classical Greek and Roman architecture. Basevi died before the building was finished and fellow architect Charles Robert Cockerell (1788–1863) completed the work in 1848. The brand-new Fitzwilliam Museum finally opened to members of the University and the general public, 32 years after Viscount Fitzwilliam’s original bequest.
The Museum was named in Fitzwilliam’s honour and his objects, artworks, books, manuscripts and more became its founding collection. You can read more about Fitzwilliam, his wealth and passion for collecting, as well as his family’s ties to the transatlantic slave trade and our ongoing work to address this legacy here.
Since opening, the building has been constantly added to and today it’s now twice the original footprint. Over the years, the collection has continued to grow through generous gifts that continue to this day.
When the Anglo-Irish landowner and art collector Charles Brinsley Marlay (1831–1912) died, he left the Fitzwilliam Museum his vast and diverse collection that included paintings, prints and drawings, rare books and illuminated manuscripts, as well as pottery, silver, jewellery, furniture, tapestries and more. Like Viscount Fitzwilliam before him, Marlay was also a former student of the University of Cambridge. To accommodate such a significant bequest, the building was extended, and works were eventually completed following the First World War.
In 1976, the Museum established the Hamilton Kerr Institute (HKI)—providing paintings conservation and postgraduate training—in a riverside property in Whittlesford, Cambridge. The building, along with an endowment, had been left to Fitzwilliam Museum by Conservative MP and journalist, Sir Hamilton Kerr (1903–1974). Between 1950–66, Kerr was the MP for Cambridge, and he was made a Baronet of the county in 1957. Today, the HKI continues to undertake art conservation services, train conservators and contribute to scientific, technical and art historical research.
The Museum’s most recent extensions were completed in 2004 with the addition of the Courtyard space, conversation studios, exhibition galleries and modern visitor facilities.
Other notable benefactors to the museum include:
Leonard Daneham Cunliffe, former director of the Bank of England. In 1937, he left his collection of renaissance bronzes, Chinese ceramics, Limoges enamels, furniture and paintings.
Cambridge mathematician and ceramics collector Dr J.W.L. Glaisher, who bequeathed his collection of English and continental pottery.
Father and son Frank and John McClean, who donated illuminated manuscripts, early printed books, ancient and medieval decorative objects and a significant collection of coins.
Sir Nicholas and Lady Judith Goodison, who have given the Museum nearly 100 gifts by leading contemporary craft makers through the Art Fund.
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