Just back from a brilliant morning behind some of the mysterious locked doors in the galleries of the Fitzwilliam Museum. I was lucky enough to join a study session for the Friends of the Fitzwilliam on the flower drawings and the fans – two of the many world-class collections within the superb wider collection.
As a lively introduction to the morning, Dr Vicky Avery, Keeper of Applied Arts, reminded us that the founding collection, by the bequest of Richard Fitzwilliam (1745–1816), 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, contained paintings, drawings, engravings, printed books and manuscripts, and his entire collection of music, including the famous Fitzwilliam Virginals Book, and several of Handel’s autograph manuscripts, described briefly here, as well as enough money from the dividends of £100,000 in South Sea funds (by then actually making money) to create an appropriate building in which to house all the Stuff. (The museum opened in 1848.)
Fitzwilliam was so keen on music that, on graduating from Trinity Hall in 1764, he travelled to France to study with the harpsichordist and composer Jacques Duphly. He also went to Spain in search of works by Scarlatti, and was director of the Concerts of Ancient Music which kept the works of Handel and others before the public in the late eighteenth century.
I had not known that much of his artwork was already in the family, inherited from his mother Catherine Decker, daughter and co-heir of the wealthy banker Sir Matthew Decker. She is in fact one of the delightful children in the group portrait now being used for the Fitzwilliam’s lovely ‘Treasured Possessions’ exhibition: this work and the famous pineapple portrait, of a fruit grown in Decker’s garden at Richmond, are touching reminders of the family connection. (Decker himself, a naturalised citizen originally from Amsterdam, was famous for his benevolent spirit and generosity to charity: this seems to have rubbed off on his grandson.)
Possibly the most famous of the Fitzwilliam’s directors (in a line including Sidney Colvin and M.R. James), Sydney Cockerell (1867–1962), claimed to have found the museum a pigsty and left it a palace. This may be a slight exaggeration, but his enthusiasm for art (he was a friend of Ruskin, and also served as a close colleague of William Morris and secretary to the Kelmscott Press, caring for Morris in his final illness and executing his will), and his energetic schmoozing of people with collections, led to some superb permanent loans and bequests. He was also responsible for the creation of the Friends of the Museum, in 1909, on the model of the French Amis du Louvre – no such equivalent apparently existed in Britain at the time. His plan was to give prosperous graduates a link with their Alma Mater beyond those provided by cricket and rowing; he also hoped to recruit such undergraduates as found themselves with spare cash after a successful outing to the Newmarket Races. One suspects this was said with tongue in cheek: certainly the demographic at today’s session featured neither category…
After this overview, the party moved to the Graham Robertson Study Room, where some wonderful flower paintings had been laid out. These came mostly from the Fairhaven Bequest, an assemblage of stunning images by G.D. Ehret, Maria Sibylla Merian, Redouté and some of his (female) pupils, to name but a few. There was an album of Bosschaert tulips, and (in some ways the most stunning item) a wedding gift to Louise of Lorraine, who had the dubious pleasure of marrying Henri III of France (not quite as unattractive as some of the other sons of Catherine de’ Medici, let it be said) in 1575.
This book, preceded by a poem in praise of the fecundity of plants and of princesses (ironic, as it turned out, as Louise was unable to produce an heir, which led to Henri IV and the Edict of Nantes) consists of a marvellous collection of flower portraits: a rose, irises, snowdrops … were they purely decorative/descriptive, or was a floral language being evoked – the rose for beauty, irises (fleurs de lis) for France, snowdrops for purity? Either way, a wonderful present: it had been rebound later (thought the superb gold-blocked vellum cover had been preserved) and has the bookplate of Wrest Park. One wonders whether, like books from so many French collections, it was bought in a London auction at the end of the eighteenth century, or whether it was acquired in France by the 2nd Earl de Grey, politician, amateur architect and francophile, who rebuilt the family home in Bedfordshire in the French style in the 1830s (though retaining the Capability Brown gardens that surrounded it)?
We could have spent the entire morning looking at all this (I almost forgot to mention two charming and obsequious notes from the great Sir Joseph Banks to various Royal Highnesses, one in his own hand, one (rather neater), by an amanuensis, edged with painted flowers, including a Banksia), but had to move on to fans.
The Messel-Rosse collection of fans was acquired by the museum from Anne, countess of Rosse (who married into the Parsons family of Monster Telescopes fame, and was a founder of the Victorian Society), daughter of Leonard Messel of Nymans, and the eponymous Magnolia x loebneri. His collection ranges from original Chinese fans though the familiar route of export ware, French chinoiserie, and home-produced items.
Back behind the scenes, we were able to look at some items from a recent bequest, by Christopher Lennox-Boyd, a great authority on mezzotints, who also collected printed fans, some in their ‘flat’ state. As the fan became a must-have fashion accessory in Britain towards the end of the seventeenth century, so a fan industry arose, primarily in London, to meet the demand. It was mostly confined to a small area near what is now Aldersgate Street (the present Fann Street there used to be spelled with one ‘n’), and a livery company (now promoting the history and study of fans among other charitable activities) was incorporated in 1709. And just to show that everything is connected to everything else, the Company is associated with the parish of St Botolph without Bishopsgate …
It appears that some at least of the fan makers were French (and of course the area is a very short distance from Spitalfields). Several were women, but a curious thing about the industry is that it did not seem to diversify, at a time when most printers (Bowyer, Boydell, and many more) would print anything from business cards to elephant folio books. As a result, most of the fan-printers seem to have gone out of business when the general use of fans (except on the most formal occasions, such as presentations at court, where the flourishing of ostrich feathers was de rigueur) dropped out of fashion, and very little is known about their lives.
But the fans are fascinating as social history: some printed with riddles and puzzles (perhaps so that you could entertain yourself when nobody asked you to dance); guides to (in)appropriate beaux; images pirated from Hogarth‘s ‘Harlot’s Progress’ (which led to a new copyright law); mourning fans with dreary landscapes, tombstones and weeping willows; and, best of all, a wonderful guide – the names of the shapes of leaves, and the parts of the flower, in beautifully coloured detail – for the budding lady botanist.
This study session, topped and tailed with delicious refreshments, was a thought-provoking delight from start to finish. Many thanks to all those involved – I wasn’t a Friend when I came in, but I signed up as I exited through the gift shop!