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Making the Impression Last: Collecting for Cambridge

The collection of Impressionist painting at Cambridge has been formed in less than a century, mainly through gift and bequest.

The first Impressionist paintings to enter the Museum were bequeathed by the collector and textile millionaire, Frank Hindley Smith in 1939. Smith had no specific connections with the Fitzwilliam Museum, or with Cambridge, but knew the economist John Maynard Keynes, who as early as 1918 acquired at Degas’s studio sale, after the National Gallery declined to buy it, a remarkable still-life of apples by Cézanne. Keynes’s appreciation of Cézanne’s work at this date was certainly advanced, and undoubtedly cultivated by his friendship with Roger Fry, who became the artist’s most fervent champion in England from around 1910. His bequest of nearly thirty French paintings and drawings included magnificent paintings by Degas, Renoir , today considered among these artists’s masterpieces, as well as an astonishing pastel skyscape by Boudin and watercolours by Pissarro and Signac.

From the late 1940s, Smith’s lead was followed by Captain Stanley William Sykes, whose gifts to the museum included Degas’s early historical composition, David and Goliath, Seurat’s magical croqueton of the rue Saint Vincent in Paris, and Sisley’s painting of Port-Marly in flood, painted at the high point of his Impressionist style. Both Smith and Sykes formed the bulk of their collection in the 1920s, at the same time that the textile manufacturer Samuel Courtauld was actively building up his own collection, in part now displayed at the Gallery in London which bears his name, and thus count among the pioneers in collecting Impressionist painting in Britain.

Around the middle of last century the museum began to benefit from the vicariously acquisitive inclinations of the Very Rev. Eric Milner White, Fellow Chaplain of King’s College and Dean of York. Working closely with the then-director, he added judiciously to the Museum’s collections of 19th century French painting wherever he perceived a gap. That Milner White derived enormous pleasure from picture-hunting is beyond doubt – ‘First, merely to draw a cheque for four figures!’ - and his ambition for the collection even led him beyond the London gallery circuit to seek out potential acquisitions in private collections abroad. Within eight years he had acquired for the Museum paintings by Pissarro, Signac and Gauguin; in 1952, reflecting on a decade of collaboration, he wrote that his self-appointed role as curator-cum-benefactor had added, ‘both to my delight and to your possession, which is best that can be!’

The Museum owes its superb collection of works by Degas to Andrew Gow, a Classics don and Fellow of Trinity College, which he bequeathed to the Fitzwilliam in 1978. Gow’s passion for Degas, and his efforts to establish a truly representative collection of his work led him to collaborate leading dealers and scholars in London and Paris. His lasting legacy lay in the establishment a fund which bears his name for the acquisition of French paintings. In 2000, thanks to it, and the support of the National Art Collections Fund, of which he was an active member for over 20 years, the Museum was able to acquire a luminous early landscape by Degas, a purchase entirely in keeping with his own taste for Degas’s early work.

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