Behind closed doors: AHA alum and Cambridge student Catriona Grant takes us into the stored collections and study rooms of the Fitzwilliam and Ashmolean

Galleries and museums across Britain are undeniably incredible public resources. Not only do they exhibit and preserve priceless works of art for the nation, they are also repositories for the vast number of artworks that space restrictions prevent from being displayed.

I have been fortunate enough that the close study of original works of art has been central to my history of art degree so far. This has included frequent lectures in the assorted rooms of the Fitzwilliam Museum, in the centre of Cambridge, engaging in discussions about works by the likes of Renoir, Hogarth, Millais and Rodin. Lectures have taken place in front of paintings by Titian, and handling fragments of ancient Greek pots and vases.

Renoir, A Gust of Wind, c.1872

Furthermore, one of the best parts of studying my subject in a city such as Cambridge, is the artistic assets owned by the university in various guises, from the cross-section of plaster casts of ancient sculptures in the Classics Faculty, to the astonishing collections of art owned by colleges.

 

Cast of the Belvedere Torso

 

One of the greatest resources I have been able to use is the Graham Robertson Study Room in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Here I have spent time looking closely at prints, drawings and paintings by a variety of artists, in the company of peers and professors alike.

 

Cotman, An Overshot Mill, c.1801-2

 

Turner, 'The Yellow Castle', Beilstein on the Moselle, c.1839

On one occasion we looked at watercolours in the collection, observing the sketchy white paint, suggestive of falling water in Cotman’s An Overshot Mill, and the ephemeral skyline in Turner’s The Yellow Castle. On another, we compared the precision of Dürer’s woodcuts with the rapid etching of Rembrandt in various states of his work.

 

Durer, Melancholia I, 1514
Rembrandt, Christ driving the money changers from the Temple, 1635

Similar experiences were had in Oxford, at the Ashmolean Museum. I was able to supplement a term of studying Russian art, with looking at Natalia Goncharova’s costume designs when working with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes in Paris – her original scribbles surround the drawing, written in French, with instructions for the seamstresses. Examples of Konstantin Somov’s work, can also be seen, such as The Embrace, a sentimental, Rococo style painting that demonstrates the particular influence of the era of Louis XIV of France on the Russian Wold of Art group.

Natalia Goncharova, Design for a Ballet Costume, after 1914
Konstantin Somov, The Embrace, 1927

But of course such opportunities are not limited to these two cities. Museums across the country have similar study rooms available – anyone can ask to see works (often by appointment) – they belong to the nation after all! The British Museum allows members of the public to request to see parts of the collection not on display, and use their library. Similarly the V&A lists the various additional study rooms open to visitors, such as those for photography, architecture, ceramics, Asian art, the list goes on….

 

The purpose of this blog is, therefore, to raise awareness of such resources, whether for study or personal enjoyment. Apologies if this is old news, but it was certainly something I was oblivious to before my lecturers introduced me to my local collections. As a result I urge you to look up the museums in your city – chances are they’ll have similar facilities in place for the general public to engage with the nation’s cultural heritage.

(Images courtesy of the Cambridge Classics Faculty, the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Ashmolean Museum’s Online Collections)