Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam is probably Cambridge University’s most famous museum, and rightly so, because it’s also by far the largest (at least of the ones I visited).  So I knew I wanted to see it, but I also knew that with the busy day we had planned, I wouldn’t have time for a thorough perusal.  Fortunately, the Fitzwilliam is an art museum, and art museums are the easiest sort of museum for me to deal with in a hurry, because there’s usually not much to read, and I’m not really one for contemplating art, so I can breeze through, only stopping to look more closely at things that really catch my eye (especially if the museum is free, like the Fitzwilliam is, so I don’t feel like I have to look at boring things just to get my money’s worth).


And the first thing that caught my eye was the museum’s interior, which, as you can probably tell from the photo opening the post, is incredibly ornate, and really rather gorgeous.  The second thing I noticed were the large cabinets meant to house Wunderkammer, which were prominently displayed in the first room. Because I am way more into cabinets of curiosity than old European paintings, I spent a healthy amount of time studying the inlay on these cabinets, as well as the treasures that would have been kept within (which included a wee ceramic frog).


I was pretty much able to dispense with the whole of the first floor in record time, because other than the Wunderkammer, it was all just boring old-ass European art (much of it religious). OK, there was a bit of modern art too, but I’m not any more a fan of that than I am of Italian Renaissance painters, so I didn’t feel the need to linger.


The only significant amount of text up here was in the temporary exhibit “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy,” which runs til 4 June, and did not allow photography.  This was a fairly interesting exhibit about how Catholicism crept into every aspect of early modern Italian life, including the home. The most memorable object in here was a creepily realistic Baby Jesus doll that was made for some sort of famous nun hundreds of years ago (I can’t remember the exact details) and resided at the convent until just a couple of years ago, when the convent was destroyed by one of the recent earthquakes. However, the doll survived, and the nuns agreed to lend it to the exhibition, so here it was, staring up at us eerily like a real baby.


Moving on…I need to talk about the gallery full of English ceramics on the ground floor, because this was the best part of the museum by far (the Fitzwilliam’s ceramics game was strong in general, as you can probably tell from the Italian-made bust of an old woman a few paragraphs up).  I already had a fondness for antique Staffordshire figurines (I still really want the Red Barn Murder set, but considering one sold for almost £12,000 in 2010, that’s never going to happen), and also royal memorabilia, specifically really old and crudely drawn memorabilia, like the plates shown above, so my expectations were high as soon as we entered this gallery and I got a taste of what was inside, and happily, the Fitzwilliam exceeded them.


My favourite royal family plate had to have been the William and Mary one, above left.  I’m hard pressed to even tell you which one is William and which is Mary (OK, I think William is the one with the moustache, but still). There were so many fabulous things here that I could have happily spent my entire visit in just this room. I want to show you everything, but I’ll restrain myself to just a few more pictures (and how sad are those poor chained bears?  I want to free them!).


Here’s some of those Staffordshire figurines I was talking about. I have a crude knock-off of the tiger one, but in mine, it looks as though the tiger is merely sniffing the soldier’s head, rather than an active mauling (though I have to say that the tiger in the real one still looks remarkably sweet for being a vicious man-eater). It’s based on a real-life event that took place in India in 1791 where the soldier, Hugh Monro, later died of his injuries, so I guess I shouldn’t be so flippant about it, but that tiger is very cute.


And here is Isaac Newton (looking rather foxy), and a piece showing the murder of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday, though surely if you know anything about his assassination, it’s that he was stabbed in the bath, so I’m not sure why he is fully clothed and just sitting on the ground. Perhaps a nude Marat would have offended Georgian (early Victorian? not sure when it was made) sensibilities too much, but obviously violence was just fine.


There was so much more splendid stuff, including a giant owl jar (I’m not including the photo because I’m in it, and I look terrible), but I’d better move on to the rest of the museum. Or what we saw of it anyway; based on what was in the gift shop, I feel sure we missed some kind of modern print room, and there was also a sign in one of the rooms telling us to check out the exhibit on Victorian life in Gallery 33, which I was more than happy to do, but we found Gallery 33, and it only had random (not delightful, or Victorian) pottery in it, so I’m not sure what they were talking about.


There was a hall of armour, and though this would probably normally be my favourite part of the museum, it was completely overshadowed by the excellent English ceramics (except for that modern sculpture of a skull in chain mail…it didn’t photograph well on account of the case, but man, it was cool).


We concluded our visit with a brief stroll through the Roman and Egyptian stuff.   I normally love sarcophagi, but they simply paled by comparison to those charming damn ceramics (I’m sorry, I realise like 80% of this post is about stupid ceramics. Maybe I should just re-title it “The Pottery Post”).


So, while I would like to return to the Fitzwilliam one day and be able to spend more time there, I honestly don’t feel like I missed out on anything on our fairly quick visit (to be fair, we probably spent twice as much time here as any of the other museums, except maybe the Polar Museum, which was small, but I felt like I needed to read everything in it). I’m obviously completely and totally captivated by their ceramics collection (and not just the English stuff; there was a pretty good German room too), but I think there are probably many things here worth seeing, especially for people who know more about art than I do (which frankly, is not that hard to do.  For a museum person, I am shamefully uninterested in most art). 4/5; it’s clearly a world-class museum, but I was really only interested in maybe 40% of what was inside (which is my problem, not theirs, but I’m the one giving the scores). Oh, and don’t miss the decorative gold pineapples on the railings outside the museum – I thought they were a nice touch!


  1. Fantastic place! I made a couple of visiting there, must have been around 1990– but I still remember it vividly. Would love to spend an afternoon there again. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I’d be curious to know how (if?) it changed since the 1990s! It seems like one of those museums that is fairly timeless, though I do remember hearing that they had to reposition some of their antique vases after a visitor knocked one over!

      1. I’m happy to say the visitor wasn’t me : ) Although, ever since that story a couple of years ago about the teenager who tripped and broke his fall be sending a fist (and a drink cup) right through a million dollar painting, I’ve been very careful of how I step around artwork!

  2. Wow, that old woman bust … I feel like that might be my future. Probably will be since I laughed when I saw it and woke the curse.
    Aw, those bears! So sweet and sad. Especially the little one looking down at the ground. Even though they’re heartbreaking, I’d like a set of them.
    Your appraisal of the Marat piece cracked me up – what the? She doesn’t even look that interested in murdering him. It’s more like she’s just accidentally hip-checked him.
    I also laughed when you mentioned the foxiness of the Newton figure, I spent a good moment admiring the rather dishy bust of him at the top of your post.

    1. I laughed too, and that was actually in the presence of it, so if there is a curse, it’ll hit you and me both. I actually came scarily close to losing a tooth yesterday when I tripped on a loose piece of pavement while running to catch a train and fell straight over. I managed to catch myself on the edge of my palm right before my face would have smashed into the ground, but it was a close call! Still made the train though…
      I can’t decide whether Newton was actually dishy or not. The one portrait of him looks like he might have been, if he wasn’t wearing a weird Brian May-esque wig.

      1. Yikes! That’s awful – glad you managed to save your teeth. Hopefully the rest of you is unscathed too.
        Brian May wig – ha! That’s perfect. Yeah, I’ve been looking up other portraits of Newton and there’s not a lot of evidence of dishiness outside the Fitzwilliam’s collection.

  3. I like the couple drinking under a tree! As for your first para, that pretty much expresses my policy too. Life’s too short to look at absolutely everything.

  4. I totally empathize with your thoughts on art in museums. Unless a painting or sculpture has a really interesting context, I don’t feel the need to spend much time looking at it. Give me a historic house or history museum any day though.
    I was also excited to see this post because a friend of mine helped curate the special exhibition and it’s nice to see it receiving attention. It’s too bad they don’t allow photos. I wish I could make the trip to see it and all the other really cool museums you blog about!

    1. Sorry I didn’t talk more about the special exhibition! It was very interesting, it’s just easier to write about the things I actually had photos of, especially because of how enamoured I was with the ceramics. By the way, I love your 19th Century Ghosts blog! It looks like we have similar tastes in books and history.

      1. It’s cool, I understand. And thank you! It’s always nice to *meet* another person who appreciates this stuff.

    1. All the Cambridge University museums are free, which is really great! I mean, London museums are generally free too, but I know that’s not always the case outside the capital. I’m planning a short trip to Dorset right now, and every museum there is at least 7 quid, which adds up if you visit a few a day!

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