“Hover through the fog and filthy air”*

*Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” Act I, scene I. Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell (16 July 1867 – 1 May 1962) was an English museum curator and collector. He was married to the illuminator and designer Florence Kate Kingsford; they had two daughters, Margaret and Katharine, and a son, Sir Christopher Cockerell, who invented the hovercraft.

From: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984) Chapter Seventeen – Sydney:

“Cockerell was one of the six children of a Brighton coal merchant who died when he was quite young. This meant a hard start, but, as he told his biographer, Wilfrid Blunt, “I was protected by poverty from marriage until I was forty.” During that time he was able to develop his two ruling passionsthe arts (or rather the classification and collecting of them), and the cultivating of great men. When he became Director of the Fitzwilliam in 1908 he identified the Museum completely with himself, and heroic indeed were his efforts to tap bequests, endowments, and death-bed legacies which would enrich it in every department. He calculated that during his lifetime he had made a quarter of a million pounds for the Fitzwilliam, and about a dozen enemies. Perhaps he had rather more than that. There were some who considered him a tiresome and even sinister busybody. But his acquisitions were there for everyone to see, and his reverence for Ruskin, Morris and Hardy was genuine. He was sure of the greatness of great men. It was only that they were often incapable of managing their affairs as well as he could himself, hence he hovered around them. Genuine, however, was his kindness and his interest in the minute personal concerns of other people, some of whom were not important at all. All he asked, he said, was that they should have “morals of some kind, however unconventional”.

Cambridge was Cockerell’s natural habitat, from which he spun his tireless web. Every day was exactly accounted for, and, from 1886 onwards, recorded in the tiny, exquisite handwriting of his diaries. For future generations, who might be lazier than himself, he summarised every page of these diaries in the top margin. “I learned”, he told Blunt, “to answer every letter by return of post; and I learned that if two jobs had to be done, the duller one must be done first.” But in truth, nothing that had to be done was dull for Cockerell. Anything properly arranged and completed gave him satisfaction. In the Georgian world of art and letters he had many rival arrangers, collectors, and fixers – Edmund Gosse, for example, Edward Garnett, and, of course, Eddie Marsh. But in the long term, none fixed so well as the Director of the Fitzwilliam.”

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