The Burrell Collection Revisited

Inspired by my recent visits to galleries and museums in London, and, as I was in the west of Scotland for a few days last week, I visited the Burrell Collection in Glasgow for the first time in about 20 years.

The result of a seventy year passion of one man, William Burrell, for gathering art and artefacts, the Collection is housed in a purpose built museum in Pollock Park  A wealthy, but careful and astute, business man, Burrell bought things that pleased him, for a price he could afford.  He gave the collection to the City of Glasgow in 1944, although he did continue to add to it in the following years up to his death in the early 1950s; his major stipulation being that it be housed in a building in a pleasant environment within the city boundaries.  It took the city near on 40 years to find the right site, design a building, raise the money, and finally to build it; and it was eventually opened in the early 1980s.

When I was at school and we made visits to the Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum I would often notice that items on display were described as being part of the Burrell gift.  Every local child knew about the history, and the mythology that the collection was so large that it was impossible to put it all on display.  Even now there is a dedicated gallery for it, built to incorporate some of the gates, doors  and window frames from long demolished castles, they can only show a small proportion of what they have, even taking into account their generous lending out policy, a practice begun by Burrell in his lifetime.

In contrast to some of his rival collectors in his era, like Randolph Hearst, Burrell didn’t collect to hide the things away, or to count them as personal trophies.  He bought things that pleased him, and then wanted to share them with everyone.  He covered the walls of his home with tapestries and every available surface with beautiful objects.  And when the house was bursting at the seams, he filled the garage and outhouses with crates and boxes.

He bought and sold, and if he didn’t care for something as much as he thought he would, he would sell it on, and use the proceeds to buy something he liked better.  There are wistful remarks on a sign in the Museum about pieces the present curators wish he hadn’t disposed of.

There are Egyptian, Roman and Greek statues and carved plaques, pieces of mosaic and jewellery; there are 17th century swords and suits of armour, porcelain and glass; 15th century gothic European church decorations, and Chinese and Japanese ceramics.  I walked around constantly remarking on the beauty of each object I saw.  And that is the key to the collection: there is no obvious philosophy or point to be made; Burrell didn’t have a theme other than what pleased him.

He was also a patron of contemporary arts of his day, but clearly of the school of ‘I know what I like’; and he liked things to look real and recognisable.  He bought a number of Degas’ work and has a major collection of early Rodin pieces.  He was also one of the main patrons of the ‘Glasgow school’, in particular Crawhall, although disappointingly for me on this visit, they are mostly out on loan at the moment.

Many of the walls of the building are completely glass, through which you can see a forest of trees which fill the area with gently dappled light.  It has allowed them to keep the electric light to a minimum but still protect the more fragile objects from direct sunlight.

I am not alone in feeling an attachment to the mythology of the place and the Collection; it is regards with great affection by the City’s population in a real proprietary sense, and you see all sorts of people there having a good old fashioned look at ‘their stuff’.

Man to small boy ‘Belangs tae all of us, son.’  Pointing to the row of Degas’ ‘See this guy here, he only dud balley dancers ‘n’ horses. ‘Magine that; balley dancers ‘n’ horse.’

‘Aye, I can see ‘at,’ replied the boy. ‘No at the same time, tho’ but.’

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