Every picture tells a story: this one gives us an intimate portrait of an artistic outsider who ran the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Sydney Cockerell did not attend University and to the Cambridge academics of 1908 this was inconceivable in a man just appointed to run a major museum in their midst’s. Yet it was this lack of formal education which breathed fresh air into the collections and have provided them with an enviable collection of Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movement items. Like his associate William Morris he believed museums and the Arts could, and should, act as a driver to social progress: prior to his appointment the Museum was reserved for the few, by the end of his appointment (1937) it was open to the many with more populist (as well as extended specialist) collections. This was partly achieved by acquiring ‘modern’ collections from his artistic associates via wealthy patrons.
Cockerell started out as a clerk in a coal business. Around 1887 he begun a correspondence with the art critic, writer and social reformer John Ruskin. He also knew the social reformer and National Trust founder Octavia Hill who was godmother to his sister Olive and the writer, designer and social reformer William Morris. These associations led him to formulate his own ideas on the role of the Arts in social reform and to become involved in putting his ideals into practise: from 1891 he worked for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings at the behest of William Morris whose private secretary he had become. Later he was also secretary for the writer Wilfred Scawen Blunt and collector of Kelmscott Press books (whose secretary he was from 1894). By 1908, when he took over at the Fitzwilliam Museum, he had been actively involved in the debate on how to best restore historic buildings for the good of society, was an avid collector and held a deep belief in beauty as an agent for social change.
It was to his friends Cockerell first turned when collecting items for the Museum. He started to amass items from living artists, modern private presses, artist’s sketchbooks, the Pre-Raphaelites and Medieval and modern literary manuscripts, such as Jude the Obscure which was obtained directly from its author Thomas Hardy. Indeed, on his first visit he bought the Museum an item from William Morris’ collection, the Pabenham-Clifford Hours (other early Medieval writings were acquired from Morris’ collection after his death). Key items came to his attention via friends, such as Ruskin’s The Psalter-Hours of Isabelle of France. Ruskin had taken pages out of the manuscript to send to friends at home and abroad and to use in teaching. Cockerell worked to recover these and get the finance to secure the manuscript for the Museum by getting a loan from a friend and holding fundraising dinners.
The collections were mainly purchased through donations and bequests which Cockerell tirelessly attracted from wealthy associates. Cockerell set about raising funds for new galleries, such as the Courtauld wing (opened 1931). He redesigned the gallery space to have mass appeal, desterilising them and making them appear more like a country residence with items of furniture, ceramics and domesticity mixed (controversially including floral arrangements) in with art works: he stated ‘I found it a pigsty; I turned it into a palace.’ He also established a Friends network (1909) which still continues, subscriptions allowed Cockerell to add to existing holdings. Cockerell aimed to create a ‘Palace of the Arts’ for the many not the few that for a small fee anyone could contribute to. today the Museum retains its country house feel, is free to enter and holds collections of mass and specialist appeal.
Cockerell appears as one of a circle of three friends in Dame Felicitas Corrigan’s novel The Nun, the Infidel, and the Superman. The other two friends portrayed were based on Dame Laurentia McLachlan and George Bernard Shaw. The book was later dramatised by Hugh Whitemore as The Best of Friends.
Copyright: LSE, GB Shaw (Society of Authors) no part of this post may be used without permission. LSE is not responsible for content on externally linked sites.