This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Art Quarterly.
It might be known as the ‘city of perspiring dreams’, but Cambridge is proving more than a match for Oxford’s dreaming spires. It is now one of the fastest growing cities in the UK, and developers are proposing a series of ambitious new public art strategies. Meanwhile, the Fitzwilliam Museum is celebrating its bicentenary, and Downing College recently opened the city’s first public college art gallery. Oxford is often said to have the upper hand when it comes to the arts. That myth might soon be discredited.
The Fitzwilliam has been called ‘the finest small museum in Europe — although ‘small’ hardly does justice to its vast neoclassical portico and hulking wings of Portland stone.The ground floor is dedicated to antiquities and the applied arts; upstairs, visitors move through galleries of Italian and Dutch Old Masters, between rooms of Blakes and Turners, past Pre-Raphaelite art and through to paintings by Picasso. For its bicentenary year, the museum is exploring the art of Ancient Egyptian coffin design, followed by a display of the illuminated manuscripts prized the museum’s founder, the 7th Viscount FitzWilliam. Joseph Wright’s portrait of the chubby, bright-eyed Viscount can be found in Gallery 3 at the top of the main stairs; track him down on the way to the French Impressionist room or Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia.
When the former Tate curator Jim Ede and his wife Helen arrived in Cambridge in 1956, they bridged the gap between the academia of the Fitzwilliam and the city’s wider art scene. Their home, Kettle’s Yard, became a hub for art-hungry students who came to admire the Edes’ extraordinary collection of work by 20th century modernists: students would occasionally go home with a work by Alfred Wallis or Georges Braque to hang on their walls. Kettle’s Yard is currently undergoing a £8.7 million renovation programme, and in the meantime its collection has gone nomadic. Cambridge colleges, faculties and the University Library will all be hosting highlights from the collection, and a changing display at the Fitzwilliam reflects the Edes’ idiosyncratic arrangements of paintings, furniture, sculpture and natural objects: a single lemon sits on a 16th century pewter dish, a painting by Joan Miró hovers above a cider press.
Walking between the Fitzwilliam and Kettle’s Yard, you’ll find art embedded into the city streets. Eric Gill’s Cavendish Crocodile creeps over the walls of the chemistry labs, and Michael Ayrton’s bronze Talos stands defiantly next to the shopping mall. Look out for the elegant inscriptions by local letter-cutters the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop, appearing on street signs, plaques and beneath the ticking Corpus Clock on Kings Parade.
There are plenty of excellent museums to be found beyond the main stretch. The Polar Museum sits like a sugarcube on Lensfield Road; inside is an important collection of Inuit Art and paintings documenting polar explorations. Over on the Sidgwick Site, the shadow of a colossal Apollo in an upstairs window is the only clue that the 1950s Classics Faculty houses the Museum of Classical Archeology, renowned for its collection of Greek and Roman sculpture casts. Likewise, David Parr House at 186 Gwydir Street can barely be distinguished from the rest of the terrace. Inside it is a paen to Arts & Crafts design, overgrown with painted foliage, curling scrolls and quotations in gothic script.
And then, of course, there are the colleges.The Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford has been around since 1968, and surprisingly it’s taken till 2016 for Cambridge to open its first public college art gallery — not at King’s, Trinity or Johns, but among the austere regency quads of Downing. Designed by Caruso St John, The Heong Gallery is a chapel-like space dedicated to modern and contemporary art. For the opening exhibition, the art historian Alan Bowness has lent works from his collection of British paintings made between 1955 and 1960, including works by Peter Lanyon, Alan Davie and Allen Jones.
The grounds of Jesus College are strewn with modern and contemporary sculpture: Cornelia Parker’s Moon Landing sits squat on the fellows’ lawn, and Barry Flanagan’s bronze horse has stood decades of drunken freshers. While King’s and Trinity keep their art away from the public gaze, some of the best collections can be seen in the newer colleges outside the city centre. Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall) is home to the largest collection of women’s art in Europe — attend dinner in the dome, and you’ll be surrounded by Paula Rego’s skeleton princess, women warriors by Maggi Hambling and Evelyn Williams’ disconcerting Nightmare. Next door, Churchill College is known for monumental outdoor sculpture by the likes of Geoffrey Clarke and Bernard Meadows, and further along Huntingdon Road Girton has a long-term exhibition of contemporary portraits and its own museum of antiquities. Wolfson College has an excellent exhibition programme, and Robinson is worth a look-in for the John Piper stained glass windows in the chapel.
There’s a lot of money around for artistic commissions, but arguably there’s only so much you can do within the hallowed walls of a college. Instead, artists are finding opportunities in the housing developments and science parks springing up around the city, each with a stipend for public art. At first glance, these areas don’t look too promising: Sim-cities of office blocks and glassy apartments, marketing suits promising modern misery. However, with Kettle’s Yard Director Andrew Nairne heading the advisory panel for the North West Cambridge development, and Wysing Art Centre consulting on Great Kneighton in South Cambridge, the proposals are more enlightened than you might expect. Most notable is the emphasis on participatory art rather than big public sculptures.
One of the first projects to materialise is ELAN, a studio and performance hub located in the CB1 development around the station. Aid & Abet, the arts practice behind ELAN, emphasise the importance of having a physical space to work from — without a base, community art projects risk becoming groundless. At the moment, that’s part of the problem. Public art is expanding exponentially across the city, but as yet there’s a lack of visibility and cohesion. However, as new projects come to fruition with the support of Cambridge’s museums and the university, 2016 could prove a turning point. It might take a bit more perspiration, but there’s no doubt the Cambridge art scene is thriving.