Enfilade

The Fitzwilliam Turns 200, with Exhibition and Book to Celebrate

Posted in books, exhibitions, museums by Editor on February 9, 2016

VenusCupid

Palma Vecchio, Venus and Cupid, 1523–24 (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum). The painting was purchased by Lord Fitzwilliam from the London sale of the Duc d’Orléans collection in 1798. He first saw the collection at the Palais Royale during his visits to Paris.

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Press release from The Fitzwilliam:

Today (Thursday, 4 February 2016) one of the great collections of art in the UK celebrates its bicentenary. 200 years to the day of his death, the Fitzwilliam Museum has revealed previously unknown details of the life of its mysterious founder, Richard 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion. Research for a new book has shown how his beloved library may have contributed to his death, and how his passion for music led him to the love of his life: a French dancer with whom he had two children, Fitz and Billy.

The Fitzwilliam Museum: A History is written by Lucilla Burn, Assistant Director for Collections at the Fitzwilliam. The book explores the full 200 year story of the Museum and the first chapter focuses on the founder. She comments: “Lord Fitzwilliam’s life has been described as ‘deeply obscure’. Many men of his class and period, who sought neither fame nor notoriety, nor wrote copious letters or diaries, do not leave a conspicuous record. But by going through the archives and letters that relate to him, for the first time we can paint a fuller picture of his history, including aspects of his life that have previously been unknown, even to staff here at the Fitzwilliam.”

Lord Fitzwilliam died on the 4th of February 1816, and founded the Fitzwilliam Museum through the bequest to the University of Cambridge of his splendid collection of art, books and manuscripts, along with £100,000 to build the Museum. This generous gift began the story of one of the finest museums in Britain, which now houses over half a million artworks and antiquities. Other than his close connection to Cambridge and his love of art and books, a motivation for Fitzwilliam’s bequest may have been his lack of legitimate heirs. The new details of his mistress help to explain why he never married.

Joseph Wright, The Hon. Richard Fitzwilliam, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, 1764 (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum)

Joseph Wright, The Hon. Richard Fitzwilliam, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, 1764 (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum)

In 1761 Richard Fitzwilliam entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and in 1763 his Latin ode, ‘Ad Pacem’, was published in a volume of loyal addresses to George III printed by the University of Cambridge. He made a strong impression on his tutor, the fiercely ambitious Samuel Hallifax, who commissioned Joseph Wright of Derby to paint a fine portrait of Fitzwilliam on his graduation with an MA degree in 1764. Fitzwilliam’s studies continued after Cambridge; he travelled widely on the continent, perfecting his harpsichord technique in Paris with Jacques Duphly, an eminent composer, teacher and performer. A number of Fitzwilliam’s own harpsichord compositions have survived, indicating he was a gifted musician.

But from 1784 he was also drawn to Paris by his passionate attachment to Marie Anne Bernard, a dancer at the Opéra whose stage name was Zacharie. With Zacharie, Fitzwilliam fathered three children, two of whom survived infancy—little boys known to their parents as ‘Fitz’ and ‘Billy’. How the love affair ended is unknown, but its fate was clouded, if not doomed, by the French Revolution. We do not know what happened to Zacharie after her last surviving letter, written to Lord Fitzwilliam late in December 1790. Her health was poor, so it is possible that she died in France. However, the elder son, Fitz (Henry Fitzwilliam Bernard), his wife Frances, and their daughter Catherine were living in Richmond with Lord Fitzwilliam at the time of the latter’s death in 1816. It is not known what happened to Billy.

At the age of seventy, early in August 1815, Lord Fitzwilliam fell from a ladder in his library and broke his knee. This accident may have contributed to his death the following spring, and on 18 August that year Fitzwilliam drew up his last will and testament. Over the course of his life he had travelled extensively in Europe. By the time of his death he had amassed around 144 paintings (including masterpieces by Titian, Veronese, and Palma Vecchio), 300 carefully ordered albums of Old Master prints, and a magnificent library containing illuminated manuscripts, musical autographs by Europe’s greatest composers, and 10,000 fine printed books.

His estates were left to his cousin’s son, George Augustus Herbert, eleventh Earl of Pembroke and eighth Earl of Montgomery. But he also carefully provided for his relatives and dearest friends. The family of Fitzwilliam’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzwilliam Bernard (‘Fitz’)—including Fitz’s wife and daughter—received annuities for life totalling £2,100 a year. On Fitzwilliam’s motivation for leaving all his works of art to the University, he wrote: “And I do hereby declare that the bequests so by me made to the said Chancellor Masters and Scholars of the said University are so made to them for the purpose of promoting the Increase of Learning and the other great objects of that Noble Foundation.”

Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Tim Knox commented: “The gift Viscount Fitzwilliam left to the nation was one of the most important of his age. This was the period when public museums were just beginning to emerge. Being a connoisseur of art, books and music, our founder saw the importance of public collections for the benefit of all. But we are also lucky that his life circumstances enabled him to do so—had there been a legitimate heir, he might not have been able to give with such liberality. From the records we have discovered, he appears to have been as generous as he was learned: he arranged music concerts to raise funds for charity and helped many people escaping the bloodiest moments of the French Revolution. We are delighted to commemorate our founder in our bicentenary year.”

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Celebrating the First 200 Years: The Fitzwilliam Museum, 1816–2016
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 4 February — 30 December 2016

Running throughout 2016, this exhibition will explore the Fitzwilliam’s past, present and future. A timeline of the first 200 years will introduce key themes and characters, while displays of objects will show how the collections have developed over two centuries. The exhibition runs alongside a new book The Fitzwilliam Museum: A History. For the very first time, this will tell the full 200 year story of the Museum. The triumphs and challenges of successive Directors, the changing nature of the Museum’s relationship with its parent University, and its dogged survival through the two World Wars. It will also shed light on the colourful, but previously little-known, personal life of Viscount Fitzwilliam himself.

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Lucilla Burn, The Fitzwilliam Museum: A History (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2016), 224 pages, ISBN: 978-1781300343, £25.

411xkMs4MaL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_The Fitzwilliam Museum: A History traces the full story from the Museum’s origins in the 1816 bequest of Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, up to the present day. It sets the Fitzwilliam’s individual story against the larger context of the growth and development of museums and galleries in the UK and further afield. The text and illustrations draw primarily on the rich and largely unpublished archives of the Fitzwilliam Museum, including the Syndicate Minutes, the reports of University debates published in the Cambridge University Reporter from 1870 onwards, compilations of earlier nineteenth-century documents, architectural plans and drawings, newspaper reports, letters, diaries, exhibition catalogues, photographs and other miscellaneous documents. With this material a substantial proportion of the narrative is told through contemporary voices, not least those of the Museum’s thirteen directors to date, each one a strong and influential character.

Starting with the obscure life of the 7th Viscount and concluding with a portrait of the Museum today, the narrative explores not just the Fitzwilliam’s own establishment and development, but also such wider issues as the changing purpose and character of museums and collections over the last 200 years, and in particular the role of the university museum. Many of the illustrations appear in the book for the first time, and include views of the galleries over the centuries as well as portraits of members of staff.

 

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