The Lewis Collection
Objects from the Lewis Collection are currently on display across the galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Ranging from ancient Egyptian to Italy, Greece to Cyprus, pieces from Lewis’s collection provide an invaluable insight into the ancient world. For a self-led tour of the Lewis Collection in the Fitzwilliam, please click here.
The Lewis Painter
This Athenian red-figure cup (skyphos) is currently on display in the Greece and Rome Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The vessel was produced in Athens in around 470 B.C using a technique which involved the painting around of sketched outlines to create a vibrantly red image.
This beautiful cup was once part of the Lewis’s large and varied collection of ceramics. It had been displayed in the crypt in Lewis’s rooms at Corpus Christi College, before being moved into the Parker Library after Lewis’s death.
The name of the artist behind this cup has not survived but scholars have been able to match over 80 other examples produced by the same hand. The artist has been called the Lewis Painter, in honour of our very own Rev. Samuel Savage Lewis; a fitting tribute to the collector.
The central image shows the Greek goddess Eos (Dawn) carrying Tithonos, who was the son of a Trojan king. Tithonos is shown as smaller than the goddess, who can easily carry him away in her arms. She is kidnapping the youth, who manages to keep hold of his lyre, the favourite instrument of the Greek rhapsode. After getting off to a rather forceful start, the pair become inseparable. So much so that Eos asks Zeus to grant eternal life to Tithonos so that they could remain together forever. Unfortunately, Eos forgot to ask for eternal youth for her companion. Her wish was granted, and Tithonos continued to age, getting older and older, aging for eternity. Eventually, in her distress, Eos locked Tithonos in his room and never returned to visit him.
It is safe to say that during Lewis’s lifetime the Lewis Museum did not resemble the contemporary museum environments we are accustomed to. Objects were tightly packed onto every available surface in Lewis’s crypt. Descriptive labels were not necessary, as Lewis personally introduced pieces of particular interest to his visitors.
Lewis did use labels to keep records on where he had purchased items from his collection, and the date each was bought. This red-figure cup (kylix), currently on display in the Greece and Rome Gallery at the Fitzwilliam, proudly retains a small hand-written label on its base. Purchased during the sale of the Lecuyer Collection in Paris in 1883, Lewis records this information in neat handwriting. This nicely illustrates Lewis’s meticulous approach to his collection, and leaves a lasting trace of the vessel’s last private owner.
Lewis’s Coin Cabinets
Agnes Smith Lewis recalls Lewis’s coin collection, once housed in the crypt at Corpus Christi College;
“Here were ancient and modern cabinets, each of which were loaded with rare and valuable coins. One of these was? in the form of a Greek temple, before which mysterious rites were wont to be performed or ever its doors could be opened. Another little cabinet had been made out of oaken beam from York Minster, with fittings of the metal of one of its bells. In the midst of these surroundings stood Mr Lewis, clothes-brush in hand” (A. Smith Lewis, The Life of the Rev. Samuel Savage Lewis (1892) 112)
These beautiful cabinets are now on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum and some still house Lewis’s coins. Many of the coins retain a label, detailing the date of the coin and when possible, its archaeological context, carefully written by Lewis himself. Lewis’s attention to detail was unusual for the time.
Two coin cabinets are worth particular mention, and show Lewis’s elaborate taste.
The ‘sliced urn’ mahogany coin cabinet is unique. It was made in Cambridge about 1880 by C.P. Bulstrode who had a cabinet shop on Sidney Street. The piece is beautiful, but remarkably impractical to use. The urn shape is sliced through the middle to form separate trays for coins. The top screws off and each tray has to be removed individually. If the coin needed is from the bottom of the urn, then each individual tray above it has to be removed one at a time.
Lewis’s classical temple coin cabinet was made by William Roberts about 1844, with a walnut veneer, mahogany and ebony carved details. The plan of the cabinet is based upon the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in Rome. The temple has a hexastyle Corinthian portico, which opens to reveal trays in the centre. The eagle on the front pediment has a revolving head which when turned, opens a concealed tray.
It is easy to imagine Lewis impressing visitors to his crypt which his cabinets as much as with the coins that they contain.