… and exit by the gift shop. You can of course, alternatively, enter via the Courtyard, which takes you through/past the gift shop first, on your way to the café. Cambridge friends will realise that I am taking about the Fitzwilliam Museum, of which the Founder’s Entrance has just reopened after several months of restoration, first of the portico and then of the great dome above the entrance hall. At the same time, a massive but delicate cleaning of the interior has taken place, so that all the gold leaf on the walls and ceiling is glittering like new.
What I hadn’t realised, until a recent talk by Dr Victoria Avery (Keeper of Applied Arts) about the conservation of the area, was that the grandiose Founder’s Entrance was not in fact finished until nearly 30 years after the building was opened to the public in 1848.
Dr Lucilla Burn’s excellent 2016 The Fitzwilliam Museum: A History quotes an 1868 guide to the Museum describing the arrival of the visitor, who ‘having just arrived by Train, must take the Bull Omnibus, which will put him [sic] down exactly opposite the Museum, and we advise him to pause before he enters to admire the noble front with lions right and left, the fine carved pediments and handsome colonnade. He will then enter through the massive bronze gates, the cost of which exceeded £1600, and ascend a broad flight of stone steps to the portico, the beautiful ceiling of which is worthy of examination’.
So far, so familiar, though the Bull Omnibus from the station has (perhaps sadly) been replaced by the ‘U’ bus. (The railways had arrived in Cambridge in 1845, destroying the profession of stage coach driver more or less overnight.)
But inside, the entrance hall ‘is still in a very unfinished state’. Four years earlier, William Whewell, polymath and Master of Trinity, had objected vehemently to the proposed purchase of the collections of William Martin Leake, when money was still needed to complete the building itself: ‘When we enter the Hall, we find everything rude and unfinished: rough brick walls, Corinthian pillars without capitals, entablatures traced in plaster.’
This was partly because of the unfortunate death of the architect George Basevi, who fell to his death from the tower of Ely cathedral in 1845. C.R. Cockerell was appointed in his place, and changed parts of the plan for the entrance hall, including the replacement of Basevi’s three domes with a single enormous lantern. This work had been carried out by 1848, when the Museum opened to the public, but it was not until the 1870s, and after much debate in the University, that the interior was finally completed and furnished.
The recent restoration works have provided the opportunity to rethink the placing of sculptures at the gallery level, providing a much better view of the elaborate floor mosaics, and creating an impression of light and spaciousness which has been reinforced by the cleaning of the painted and gilded decoration on the walls and ceiling.
A bust of George Basevi sits in appropriately solitary splendour on the right as you look across to the entrance from the top of the stairs.
He is flanked by two brace of politicians: the Elder and Younger Pitts, Sir George Savile (1726–84, graduate of Queens’ College and remarkably independent politician), and – appropriately turning his head away from the others – the radical John Horne Tooke.
On the other side, Lady Augusta Stanley (1822–76), sister of Lord Elgin of the Marbles, confidante of Queen Victoria, and later wife (to the initial fury of the queen) of Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, dean of Westminster, stands (if busts stand?) next to an unknown young lady of the 1830s–40s, who could (as Dr Avery points out) easily represent her as a teenager.
Clarke (1769–1822) was the younger brother of James Stanier Clarke, naval chaplain, librarian and author (with John McArthur) of The Naval Chronicle. Edward Daniel was also a clergyman, but also a traveller (mostly as bear-leader to various aristocratic Grand Tourists) and collector: a graduate and fellow of Jesus College, he left many of his antiquarian pieces and prints to the University, and several of them now reside in the Museum.
Archibald Alison (1757–1839) Scots minister and father of the possibly more famous historian of the same name, was well known in his day as the author of Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790), which the ODNB describes as ‘one of the most readily accessible and best illustrated contributions to an eighteenth-century English and Scottish tradition of associationist psychology’. (Don’t all rush …)
Leake (1777–1850), the proposed purchase of whose collections caused Whewell to rant a bit, was by far the most distinguished of the three. A career soldier, he was part of the British military mission to the Ottoman Empire, which gave him scope for travels during which his topographical and antiquarian interests could be pursued, and on his return to London at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he began to publish his discoveries and observations, both in learned journals and in book form. Travels in the Morea (3 vols., 1830) and Travels in Northern Greece (4 vols., 1835) are probably his most famous works, still important today, but he also edited some of the writings of Burckhardt, wrote a book on the origins of the Greek War of Independence, and was – unsurprisingly – a dedicated Philhellene. The Museum did eventually purchase a great many of his thousands of ancient coins, ceramics, gems and small statuary, thought some of his sculptures ended up in the British Museum.
The statues in the niches around the Founder’s Entrance (including a cast of Canova’s Venus Italica), have remained in situ, as, of course have the now spruced-up architectural elements, such as the delightful ostrich supporters of Viscount Fitzwilliam’s coat-of-arms above the entrance to Gallery 3 (each with a horseshoe in its beak to represent the legendary omnivorous nature of the bird) and the dedication stone above the entrance door.
But, when you get there, look up into the dome – it will blow your socks off.