Sydney Carlyle Cockerell

By Wilfrid Blunt
Date Added: 17/07/2009


With the death of Sir Sydney Cockerell there vanishes what must be the last link with some of the greatest literary and artistic figures of the second half of the nineteenth century in England. The names of Ruskin, William Morris and Octavia Hill now sound from the remote past; yet Sydney Carlyle Cockerell was a friend of all three. With Ruskin he visited Abbeville and Beauvais; he worked with Morris, first as his librarian, then as secretary to the Kelmscott Press; and he sowed what he called his "philanthropic wild oats" with Octavia Hill in Southwark.

It was his contact with Ruskin and Morris that opened his eyes to beauty and gave him the courage to take the brave step of exchanging the safe but distasteful office of the coal merchant for the insecure but irresistibly attractive world of art. Through Morris he learned to appreciate books and manuscripts, and in the years that intervened between the closing of the Kelmscott Press in 1898 and his appointment as Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge ten years later, he earned a precarious living editing the manuscripts of great collectors, and for a time as secretary to Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. It was not long before he came to be recognized as a leading authority on medieval manuscripts.

On his marriage in 1907 to Florence Kate Kingsford it grew imperative for him to find financial security, and his appointment to Cambridge provided this. Now came his finest hour. He inherited a museum which was shoddy, dreary, neglected; he transformed it into one of the finest museums in England and perhaps the best displayed collection in the world. No less than a quarter or a million pounds came to the Fitzwilliam during his reign and entirely through his boundless energy and enthusiasm.

On his retirement in 1937, at the age of seventy, it might have been supposed that Cockerell would have been content to take well-earned rest. But inaction was to him unthinkable. For a short time he acted as London adviser to the Felton Bequest to the, National Art Gallery of Victoria. New South Wales. After the War he returned from exile in the country to the house he had bought at Kew - a house which soon became the Mecca of all who were interested in fine printing and calligraphy.

For many years before this, Cockerell had encouraged the revival of good handwriting. Edward Johnston, pioneer of the revival of formal writing in

England, owed much to his wise and stimulating counsel and it would probably be impossible to find an enthusiast for calligraphy who was not eager to admire his debt of gratitude to Cockerell for his help and encouragement. What the Society for Italic Handwriting owes to his enthusiasm and generosity can never fully be told: he was perpetually at its service in every possible way and if the next generation in England writes better than the present it will be Cockerell, more than anyone else, who is responsible for the improvement.

Cockerell's gift for friendship has become a household word and never was friend more faithful. He understood that friendship was a delicate plant and he tended each of his innumerable friends with the utmost care. He had friends of all ages and both sexes. He was miraculously able, and without effort, to bridge the gulf of age, because he never "talked down" to the young. A few days before his death he spoke to me of a young man with whom he had quite recently struck up a friendship. "What is there about him," I asked, "that makes you interested in him?" He said, "Because he seems to me to be exactly like I was at the same age." "Which was?" I asked, teasingly (for he always enjoyed being teased). "He loves all the best things in life," he replied. "He is enthusiastic and zealous. He has impeccable taste. . ." He paused; his eyes twinkled; he gave one of his inimitable little chuckles, and added, "Pretty cheeky of me to say that, wasn't it?"

It was this astonishing freshness, together with his unquenchable interest in people and in beautiful things, which made him, even in his ninety-fifth year, younger in spirit than many men of half his age.