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"I Found it a Pigstye; I Turned it into a Palace" Opens at The Fitzwilliam Museum
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Joan of Arc 1882. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

CAMBRIDGE.- The Fitzwilliam Museum’s most spectacular treasures are brought together for the first time in a major new exhibition celebrating one of the most dynamic periods in the Museum’s history: the Directorship of Sir Sydney Cockerell from 1908 to 1937.

‘I turned it into a palace’: Sir Sydney Cockerell and The Fitzwilliam Museum explores the life and work of scholar, collector and Director Sir Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962), who boasted that he found the Museum ‘a pigstye’ and ‘turned it into a palace’. Cockerell’s connoisseurship, ambition and innovation transformed not just the Fitzwilliam and its collections, but the display and interpretation of art in museums and galleries all over the world.

Presenting a fascinating portrait of Cambridge at the beginning of the twentieth century, the exhibition examines Cockerell’s remarkable journey from his family’s coal business to become the confidante and associate of such leading artists, writers and collectors of the period as John Ruskin, William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Cockerell’s indomitable character, his reforming principles and hisdetermination in forcefully pursuing only the finest acquisitions was responsible for the Fitzwilliam’s astonishing renaissance from an antiquated, cluttered miscellany with limited opening hours to the world-class public art museum it is today.

A great number of the Museum’s most remarkable acquisitions were secured under Cockerell’s leadership, including Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia and some of the finest ancient Greek vases, which are among the Museum’s iconic permanent exhibits. ‘I turned it into a palace’ will offer the opportunity to view those treasures more rar ely seen by the public, with an astonishingly broad and diverse array of exhibits: works by William Blake and Samuel Palmer, William Morris’ Kelmscott Press books, Keats’ autograph manuscript of Ode to a Nightingale, works by the Pre-Raphaelite circle (including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Joan of Arc, found by his deathbed), prints by Dürer, and drawings by Botticelli and Rubens. These fascinating objects are displayed alongside Ancient Roman and Greek antiquities, extracts from the Ancient Egyptian papyrus of the Book of the Dead of Ramose, literary autographs by Thomas Hardy and Siegfred Sassoon, original scores by Mozart and Scarlatti, and an exceptional selection of drawings by Turner.

‘I turned it into a palace’ also celebrates Cockerell’s life-long passion for manuscripts with a selection from the Museum’s superb collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts. One of the exhibition’s undoubted highlights will be the chance for the public once more to view the Macclesfield Psalter, the remarkable fourteenth-century East Anglian illuminated manuscript secured for the Museum by a high-profile fundraising campaign in 2005.

The exhibition also marks the centenary of the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum– the group founded by Cockerell in 1909 to support the Museum, and the first organisation of its kind in Britain – and celebrates their role in expanding the Museum’s collections. Friends’ subscriptions are devoted entirely to supporting the acquisition of works of art and are vital in helping to secure new treasures; some of the most significant will be on display.

Offering the unique opportunity to enjoy a wealth of The Fitzwilliam Museum’s foremost and unusual masterworks gathered together in one exhibition, ‘I turned it into a palace’ is a fascinating testament to the talent oSir Sydney Cockerell as a scholar, collector and museum director.

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