Picture Galleries outside London: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Picture Galleries outside London: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: Many of the finest Art Galleries in Britain are outside London. We begin this occasional series on these galleries in the hope that our readers may read of old favourites and be inspired to discover new ones.

It will be generally conceded that to visit Cambridge by motor car is foolhardy. Sensible people go there by train. The Fitzwilliam Museum may be reached in a short walk from the railway station if one turns left in the Hills Road at the Church of Our Lady, which compensates for its lack of antiquity with a plenitude of gargoyles, then right into Trumpington Street, with its clear runnels of water in the gutters. There stands the Fitzwilliam Museum in its squat neoclassical aplomb, a little below the architectural marvels of Kings Parade, as a memorial to Richard, Seventh Viscount Fitzwilliam, who left 144 pictures to the university in 1816, including five formerly in the collection of Queen Christina of Sweden. In 1834 the number of pictures was more than doubled by the less patrician Daniel Mesmen's bequest of Netherlandish works, and in 1912 expanded by the sumptuous Marley legacy. The gallery has been enhanced since then by further gifts and purchases, particularly of French and English paintings. The original building of 1837-47 has been steadily extended and now contains several ancillary departments.

Edmund Spenser studied for more than ten years at Pembroke College, nearly opposite the site of the museum. Inside the picture gallery one remembers his words about 'the ways, through which my weary steps I guide,/ In this delightful land of Faerie'. Appropriately, at the head of the stairs one encounters a dreamy picture by George Stubbs of Spenser's Una and her lion, both immersed in their separate reveries in the wide forest of The Faerie Queene. Una's white donkey, too, ponders whatever notions a white donkey may have. Underneath the picture, lucent as it is in enamels applied to a plaque of Wedgwood china made for the purpose, Stubbs's self-portrait is fixed, his face heavier and more atrabilious than one would suppose from his blithe paintings. Across this literary room hang four spare but well-characterised pieces in honour of Richardson's Pamela by Joseph Highmore. Hogarth's two stern moralities, Indiscretion: Before and After, although encroaching on the Richardsonian propriety ot Highmore's absurd sweet puppets, show how right Pamela was in not succumbing to Mr. B's overtures. After the seduction Hogarth's mob-capped maidservant is left rumpled and soiled with ardours, tears and a dependence on her now-indifferent suitor as he tugs up his breeches.

From the Hogarth the visitor turns either right towards the older continental masters or left into the two rooms full of more modern works, mainly by British artists. They include marvels of mellow effulgence by Richard Wilson; a view of Hove Beach at low tide, still uvid with foam and rain, by John Constable; and a scene in Richmond Park, with no trace of his characteristic grandiosity, by John Martin: all benign air and blown leaves. Too much attention has been paid to Stanley Spencer's grubby bedroom-scene, since he had neither aptitude nor liking for close anatomical drawing.

One enters the Marley Gallery of early Italian pictures through Room Four, which contains French paintings, mainly nineteenth-century, but with a reputed Poussin which has some claim to authenticity as his own copy of Eleazer and Rebecca at the Well, in the Louvre. This painter was fond of repeating the same subject, and the picture is distinguished by Poussin's love of startlingly bright colours in otherwise dark areas. The curiosity of the French Room is La Liseuse, painted in collaboration by Fragonard and his pupil and sister-in-law, Marguerite Gerard. The svelte blonde on the left, ethereal yet voluptuous, must be by Fragonard himself. There are three Cotors, two of them usually bare of foliage but the third a customary depiction of drowsy, olive woods flecked with lemonish light and graced by schoolgirl dryads; and a pair of choice still-life panels by Fantin-Latour. …

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