Sunday, 4 September 2016

Fitzwilliam Museum

Tuesday, having returned to the bf's the day before, we went into Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum, a favourite with this blog.  This year is the bicentennial of the foundation of the museum, when university received the bequest of the late Anglo-Irish aristocrat,Viscount FitzWilliam of Merrion.  And a very generous bequest it was: the Viscount's vast collections of manuscripts and of art plus a generous amount of money to fund the construction of a suitable structure in which to house them.  Following a competition George Basevi (1794-1845) was appointed architect.  Work commenced in 1836.  In 1845 following Basevi's death the great C R Cockerell was appointed architect.  Work of the amazingly opulent entrance hall was completed by E M Barry between 1871-75.  It is a stunning space.  In fact the Museum acts a history lesson in mid 19th century classicism - marking that shift from Greek inspired Neo-classicism to Roman riches and eventually the Italian Renaissance.
The museum has even entered into the folklore of the city.  The stone lions that guard the entrance to the museum (I really should have taken a photo of said beasts) are suspposed to come alive at the stroke of midnight (every night?) and either, (according to which version of the tale you hear), paddle down into Trumpington St to drink from the conduits running between the pavement and the street, or nip into the museum - presumably for a bit of after hours culture.
Anyway there are four exhibtions currently on at the Fitzwilliam, and they are from the museum's collections and show what a wunderkammer the Fitzwilliam actually is.  The largest exhibition is 'Colour: Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts': two rooms full of the most exquisite images. There were a number of Indian, Eastern Roman work of display - my eye was particularly taken with the couple of Persian manuscripts on display.  One of them made in what is now Afghanistan was sumptuous - deep borders of golden figures around a central section of jewel like intensity.  Indeed both of these manuscripts are full of figures.  No sign of any Islamic ban on the human figure.  There is, in fact, a long history of representational art in Islam, which has caused several art historians to tie themselves up in intellectual knots.  Perhaps the subject of another post.  The overwhelming majority, however, of the 150 items in the exhibition come from the Western Art tradition, and account for five hundred years of that history.  The techniques on display were staggering and possibly reached an apogee of sophistication in the late Middle Ages. One of the things I noted was the correlation made between art of the illustrator and that of the alchemist.  Sometimes in manuals on illustration colours would be referred to not by name but by the planet they symbolized.  Perhaps it was fitting then that one of the objects on display was a long vellum scroll from the end of the Middle Ages; English, it is a diagrammatic representation of the arcana of Alchemy.  The exhibition felt in some ways like an initiation into the mysteries; not only were the techniques explained, but we seeing artwork that had not been displayed to the general public before.
The Fitwilliam has been the beneficiary of other bequests in its history and one of them, the Bruce Ingram Bequest (over a 1000 items), provided the material for 'Breughel and his Time: Landscape drawings from the Bruce Ingram Bequest'. This was an exploration of the beginnings of landscape painting in the Low Countries in the late 16th & early 17th centuries.  And very varied the work was.  I suppose what attracted me, apart from questions of technique, was the anecdotal quality of much of the work on display - the view of village and country life that these images give us.  The work is incredibly refined and delicate.  The colour palate subdued - is that due to age?  Passing from the illuminated world to this post Reformation world one did get a sense of continuity of technique and perhaps content too.  For in the background of a lot of the later illuminated manuscripts is that same sense of delight in landscape and the anecdotal.
It was probably a sense of discontinuity that encouraged Viscount FitzWilliam's collecting, a desire to rescue from the conflagration of the French Revolution and its attempt to impose on Europe its ideology in a long series of  wars.  Hints that FitzWilliam was opposed to the Revolution and more than likely the whole Enlightenment project can be seen in the third exhibition: 'An Amateur's Passion: Lord FitzWilliam's Print Collection'. The prints on display are just a tiny proportion of the 40,000 in Viscount Fitzwilliam's collection.
Finally in the octagonal gallery, where the bf and I saw the Rampant Lions exhibition, was 'Celebrating the First 200 years: The Fitzwilliam Museum 1816- 2016'.  I don't want this to sound as though it was an anti-climax, but it was just simply a succinct telling of the museum's history.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Happy Anniversary!

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