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If Fitz is good enough for Prince Charles, it’s good enough for me

29/11/16 Prince Charles 29/11/16 Prince Charles at the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, with Camilla, to celebrate the museums 200th anniversary, and also the University Librarys 600th. Picture: David Johnson
29/11/16 Prince Charles 29/11/16 Prince Charles at the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, with Camilla, to celebrate the museums 200th anniversary, and also the University Librarys 600th. Picture: David Johnson

I felt a bit bad last week when Prince Charles and his good lady wife took time out of doing whatever it is they do to come all the way up to Cambridge and say nice things about the Fitzwilliam Museum, on the occasion of its bicentenary.

I felt bad because, despite having lived in Cambridge more than a decade, I’ve only visited the Fitz a handful of times – and even then in a frankly rather distracted, half-hearted, are-they-still-serving-lunch? sort of a way.

It’s true that we don’t always appreciate what we’ve got on our doorstep. Or rather, we appreciate it without necessarily actually using it – like all those Lononders who say they couldn’t live anywhere else because they’d miss all the galleries and fringe theatre productions they never go to.

Also, while I like to think I’m reasonably cultured – by which I mean I’ve read my share of Dickens, Hardy and at least two of the Bronte sisters, and occasionally go to the theatre, even when it’s not panto season – I’ve always been slightly at sea when it come to art (singular).

This is partly because I don’t know enough about it, and partly because I have a sneaking suspicion I’d be disappointed by my own views. I mean, I don’t want to be one of those philistines who says, “My five-year-old could have painted that”. But I do look at some contemporary art and think, “My five-year-old could have painted that”.

I’m also not a fan of art where the artist has to provide a text explaining what it’s supposed to be about. Because if it’s not obvious from looking at it, then they haven’t done it properly, surely? Or am I missing something?

On the other hand, I actually prefer a lot of contemporary art to all those gloomy old paintings of saints and endless Biblical scenes people used to specialise in. I think the Tate Modern is terrific. Sure, some of the ‘art’ there is eye-wateringly pretentious rubbish. But a lot of it isn’t.

And so it was with these conflicting thoughts – a case of ‘I don’t know much about art, and I don’t even know what I like’ – that I took myself off to the Fitz last week, that I might better acquaint myself with this jewel in Cambridge’s cultural crown.

Despite its abundance of treasures, I knew exactly where to I wanted to start my journey: the Courtyard Café, where I enjoyed an excellent sweet potato, chickpea and spinach curry. Mmmmm… culture.

My pretentious radar prickled a little when, as I ate, I read a notice for a current exhibition, Realisation: Recent prints by Susan Aldworth and Jane Dixon, which promised to “challenge our assumptions of reality and identity”. It was accompanied a picture of what looked like some snot smeared on a train window.

Roughly speaking, the Fitzwilliam divides neatly into museum artifacts downstairs, art galleries upstairs. In retrospect, kicking off with the Arts of Korea may have been a mistake. Because, let’s be honest, you’ve got to be a very particular type of person to be thrilled by pottery, haven’t you? Much of the ground floor, in fact, is dedicated to ceramics of various countries and eras, many of which are positively kitsch (pineapple teapot, anyone?). Examining the shelves of porcelain cupids and fruit sellers, it struck me that it’s a fine line between a priceless collection of artefacts and the knick-knacks you’d find at your nan’s house.

Fortunately, they gave way to the Greek, Roman and Egyptian galleries, which is much more like it – by which I mean, much more like something from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Highlights here include the Sarcophagus lid from the tomb of King Ramsesses III in the Valley of Kings, Thebes, an enormous, ornate Roman coffin and a mummified cat from the 26th Egyptian dynasty. I also loved the mummified falcon and the tiny mummified crocodiles. I love anything mummified, basically.

This section leads on to an equally boys’ own space filled with swords, claymores, spears, guns, crossbows, Japanese skull helmets and a full-size horse in Medieval armour. It’s hard for a pineapple teapot to compete with that, really, isn’t it?

I ventured upstairs – via a fabulous Antony Gormley bronze maquette of the Angel of the North, set into a picture window, its wings spread out majestically against the winter sky – to the art galleries. Many of these, I have to tell you, fall firmly into the “gloomy saints” category (if you like pictures of Jesus being dragged in various states of agony to the Crucifixion, the 16th to 18th-century Italian art collection is the one for you).

Maybe it’s me, but there’s just something about austere portraits of glowering archbishops, brigadiers and ladies “at their toilet” that I find a bit remote and… intimidating. The 19th and 20th century galleries, by contrast, seem much more relatable – but perhaps that’s missing the point of exotic treasures somewhat? Either way, I loved Stanley Spencer’s Landscape in North Wales and William Nicholson’s Armistice Night, 1918, and was disappointed to find Lowry’s After the Wedding is currently off display. (I like Lowry because I’m from the industrial north, and because they used to sing a song about him on Top of the Pops when I was a kid. Relatable, you see?)

Best of all, though, is the gallery dedicated to the French Impressionists – a welcome splash of light and colour and romance courtesy of Monet, Renoir, Degas, Matisse, Cezanne et al. There’s a real thrill in seeing those visible brushstrokes, so close you can reach out and touch them. (I didn’t, obviously. They frown on that sort of thing.) Partly this is because I genuinely love that style of painting – we’ve got two Van Goghs in our living room (prints, I should point out, in case any international art thieves are reading). But it’s probably also because these are the superstars of the art world, and I’m very easily dazzled by a bit of celebrity (Van Gogh was even in Doctor Who, for goodness’ sake).

Also, there’s no small amount of civic pride involved in the thought that these original paintings by these great icons should reside here, in Cambridge. It’s a status symbol, if you will, for the city. I don’t imagine they have Van Goghs in Bedford or Chelmsford, do they?

And that’s the thing about the Fitzwilliam. Whatever your enthusiasm, or lack of, for Korean ceramics or smears of snot that challenge your assumptions about identity, the fact that the Fitz is here, in our town, is something to be celebrated in itself.

And that’s to say nothing of the actual building, which feels like someone’s dropped a vast, Roman temple, complete with lions, down in the middle of East Anglia.

Edward Middleton Barry’s breathtaking neoclassical entrance hall, with its grand, sweeping staircases beneath an elaborate dome, is worth the visit alone.

To be inside the Fitz’s walls, meanwhile, is to experience a hushed oasis of calm in a world that conspicuously isn’t any of those things. Plus, you absolutely have to love anywhere with a sign that reads ‘Ancient Sudan and Toilets’. And did I mention the sweet potato, chickpea and spinach curry?

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