AuthorDornan, Duncan M.

Burrell Collecting

Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) was both a prominent Glasgow businessman and one of the world's most successful collectors. After attending Abbey Park boarding school in St Andrews, he joined the family firm of Wm Burrell & Son at the age of 13, where he proceeded to demonstrate considerable skill in running the business alongside his brother George. (1) Sir William's grandfather, George Burrell, had set up on his own account in 1856, the core business generally being the operation of barges on the Forth and Clyde Canal. In 1862 the firm acquired its first ocean-going vessel and by the time young William Burrell joined the firm in 1873, it consisted of the canal and coasting trade plus nine ocean-going ships. William and George bought out elements of the business on the death of their father in 1875 and the fleet was updated with two batches of ships, taking advantage of a depression in shipbuilding to acquire at favourable prices. This fleet was sold off by 1899, in part reflecting a mild improvement in trading conditions to facilitate a profit. Following the slump in shipping values after the Boer War (1899-1902), the Burrells ordered a new fleet of sixteen ships, again at favourable rates. Flaving generated significant profit during the First World War, Burrell finally sold off most of the fleet from 1916 and was not destined to return to the business.

Burrell's collecting career also started early. He quoted an early acquisition experience to the British Antique Dealers' Association, buying a painting by J.M.W. Turner at a sale for 18 shillings, but reflecting on the cost of framing, he re-entered it in the sale, losing 3 shillings. (2) His eye for a good deal sharpened, as he applied his business skill to the acquisition of art. Sir William, supported by his wife Constance Mary Lockhart, Lady Burrell (nee Mitchell; 1875-1961), built a substantial collection covering his primary areas of interest: Chinese ceramics, medieval stained glass and tapestries, arms and armour, religious iconography, French Impressionist art, a substantial number of works by the 'Glasgow Boy' Joseph Crawhall and by Matthias Maris, (3) later augmented by works representing ancient civilisations.

In assembling this collection, Burrell researched extensively, relied on trusted dealers for advice and stalked his prey, to secure good value for his investment. A consequence of his thorough approach was building a collection containing items of outstanding quality, with peer objects in many of the world's most renowned institutions. It is a reflection of the diligence of the Burrells that by the early 1940s the collection numbered in excess of 6,000 items. A significant amount were held in Hutton Castle, outside Berwick on Tweed, where the Burrells lived amongst the objects. However, many objects were in store, or on loan to a large number of institutions across the UK. It is important to know that Burrell was an enthusiastic lender to institutions and exhibitions across the UK, lending to the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition, later Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the National Galleries in Edinburgh and the Tate Gallery in London, to name but a few.

Donation of the Collection

Through the 1930s Burrell seems to have started to think seriously about the fate of his collection. There was some expectation on the part of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, that had benefited from loans, that elements of the collection might pass to it. However, Burrell was anxious to see it intact and held in a separate building, to which end, in 1942, he approached London County Council. Though the matter was considered very seriously, the resultant cost of maintenance was felt to be unsustainable, and the offer was rejected in December 1943. (4) Within days Burrell wrote to T.J. Honeyman, the Director of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, in Glasgow, offering the collection to his home city.

This was an act of extreme generosity, with the collection potentially valued at around lm [pounds sterling], plus 450,000 [pounds sterling] to build a new museum. The Burrell Trustees were established as a body to administer the balance of the estate, to support continued development of the collection and to essentially act as guardians of the spirit of the bequest. The deed of gift came with a number of conditions, most onerous, initially, that the collection was to be housed by Glasgow Corporation, in a suitable distinct and separate building, within four miles of Killeam, Stirlingshire, and not less than sixteen miles from Glasgow Royal Exchange. This condition was to overcome the fear of pollution damaging the collection. He also stated that "the collection should be shown as it would be in a private house". (5) It should be noted that, during Burrell's lifetime, a degree of flexibility on these restrictions was shown. The search for a suitable estate to hold the collection, in broadly the right location, involved the ultimate rejection of three properties in Stirlingshire. As a result, locations closer to Glasgow were explored, namely Mugdock Castle and Dougalston Estate, both with Sir William's approval. Significant progress on plans for a museum had been made at Dougalston when the National Coal Board revealed proposals to sink a mine shaft in the area. This ended Burrell's support for the site. Though ultimately none of these proved successful, the flexibility shown made the decision to build in Pollok Estate in 1966, when it was gifted to the Council, much easier. The consideration of design proposals for the museum building, which secured Sir William's approval, also indicated some leniency in relation to the caveat to display as in a house.

Restrictions Applied to the Gift

Of more lasting significance were Burrell's stipulations regarding the lending of material from the collection and display of peer items in the new museum, alongside the collection. The Memorandum of Understanding, between Burrell and the City states:

[...] the donees shall be entitled from time to time to lend temporarily to responsible bodies any article or articles forming part of the collection as they think fit for exhibition in any Public Gallery in Great Britain. Burrell was to further enhance this restriction in his...

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