Our main intention was to see the Degas exhibition, which unfortunately was not open to photography because some of the work was privately owned or on loan. In one case the loan had been withdrawn so only a reproduction was displayed. Nonetheless it was one of the finest exhibitions since the National Gallery showed Degas some years ago. The irony is that many of the works actually belong to the Fitz so they can be seen and photographed at other times. Small wax sculptures are among his most exquisite items, and there are more of them in the Fitz collection than anywhere else in the UK. They are so well known they don’t need photos. There are also his delicate drawings in chalk and/or charcoal.
As ever with a special exhibition that draws from a museum’s own stock there is a degree of rearrangement in other galleries. In a few cases, Howard Hodgkin for example, painted responses to Degas were incorporated in the exhibition. Sculptures and ceramics from the rooms being used for Degas could be found in the ceramics gallery, between the Chinese at one end and Islamic (mainly Iranian) at the other. The Leach family, Shojji Hamada (who had worked with Bernard Leach) and Barbara Hepworth, some of whose sculptures were made in St Ives near the Leach studio, were within a few steps of each other. Edmund de Waal had two fine pieces on display also. As they are inside vitrines, photography of the ceramics suffers from reflection but I hope that isn’t too distracting.
I had thought of spending time with the splendid Martinware owl until my eyes were drawn to a maquette of Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” in a spectacular setting at the top of some stairs. It was actually on a landing. How it would have looked from above I’m not sure, but to see it almost flying framed by a window and reflected on the tiles to left and right was amazing.
We try to visit the Fitzwilliam once or twice a year, much less than when we lived closer to Cambridge, and perhaps absence really is making the heart grow fonder. Anyone who can find time for the Degas exhibition will be richly rewarded but it is well worth giving a whole day to the museum; lunch is not expensive and will restore the mind before an approach to other galleries. I only had time for four, and reserved the Greeks (and especially Cyprus), Egypt and the modern art, all of which are fondly remembered, for the next visit. It will not be too long hence.