The Fitzwilliam Museum is considered to be one of the greatest art collections of the nation and a monument of the first importance. Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, donated his works of art and library, together with funds to house them to the University of Cambridge in 1816.
Fitzwilliam’s bequest included 144 pictures, among them Dutch paintings, which he inherited through his maternal grandfather – Sir Matthew Decker, a Dutch financier who came to England in 1700 in the wake of Prince William of Orange. There are also masterpieces by Titian, Veronese and Palma Vecchio that he acquired at the Orléans sales in London. His library included medieval manuscripts and a collection of music autographs by Handel, Purcell and other composers, which makes it a prominent music library of the world.
Although they were ancient Irish aristocracy, by the 18th century the Fitzwilliams of Merrion had little money. The great wealth that lay behind the founding of this museum came via the marriage in 1744 of the 6th Viscount to Decker’s eldest daughter, Catherine, who was also his heiress.
Later the collections have grown by gift, bequest and purchase. Today the museum has an aggressive purchasing strategy to bring more works of art to the collection.