The man who bought everything

Robin Mead admires the Burrell Collection in its purpose-built Glasgow home

Wouldn’t it be nice to have enough money to buy anything you wanted? How about a really grand house? Or bigger car, perhaps. And a luxurious holiday, like a world cruise.

But once you were back from that round-the-world tour, what else would there be to spend your money on? Shipping magnate Sir William Burrell knew the answer to that: he started to collect the world’s greatest art treasures and historical artefacts.

That was well over a century ago. Today, the Burrell Collection is one of the finest jewels in the treasure-house that comprises Glasgow’s municipal museums. In fact, this is a real treasure-house all of its own, because the 9,000 items Sir William and his wife Caroline, amassed are now displayed in a magnificent, purpose-built exhibition centre on the Pollok Estate.

Burrell’s family were shipping agents during Victorian Glasgow’s golden age, and Sir William (1861-1958) became a collector early: he was a respected art expert in his teens and he took a special interest in medieval European art, Oriental ceramics and bronzes and European paintings. Fate played a part when he and his brother inherited the family firm in their 20s, but they worked hard and built Burrell & Son into a major international shipping company. Then, in 1918, the brothers decided to sell off what had become a large fleet of vessels, and William at last had enough cash to buy whatever took his fancy.

What particularly caught his eye were a coffin panel, painted in Ancient Egypt 1,000 years before Christ was born, some Roman mosaic paving, a collection of Tang Dynasty earthenware figures, carpets and rugs from the Muslim world, and paintings byDegas, Cezanne and Boudin. He bought them all… and much more besides.

Most of these masterpieces ended up firstly in the Burrells’ home in Glasgow, and later in Hutton Castle, near Berwick, where the couple settled after the sale of the business.

That might have been the end of the story if Sir William had not been determined to share his treasures with a wider audience. He decided, as early as the 1930s that he wanted his collection to pass into public ownership, and in 1944 he formally signed everything over to the City of Glasgow. His one stipulation was that the collection should have a purpose-built home. It took the best part of another four decades for Sir William’s dream to come true, but in 1983 the prize-winning museum that now houses the Burrell Collection finally opened its doors to the public. A bright, airy building, it shows off every item to perfection.

Here, in the courtyard, stands the famous Warwick Vase, nearly 2000 years old and found in the ruins of the Emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. Here are the great bronzes of Auguste Rodin.

Separate galleries reflect different times and traditions: Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, China. Besides bringing pleasure to art lovers, the collections they contain are invaluable to scholars because Sir William kept notes about the provenance of every item.

A great deal of imagination has gone into presenting this superb collection. Some of Sir William’s furniture stands in accurate reconstructions of rooms from Hutton Castle. The medieval stone doorways and portals he garnered from all over Europe, and the wooden panels and fireplaces he loved, have been incorporated into the museum building itself. The huge collection of stained glass is shown against a wall of light, while the gloomier first-floor picture gallery has its paintings cunningly lit to show them to best advantage. Huge tapestries and gleaming suits of armour lurk around every corner.

Everyone has their own favourite exhibit, and if Eugene Boudin’s 1869 painting “The Jetty at Trouville” ever disappears from the Burrell Collection, I’ve got it. Except that the building’s designers have thought of that, and at nightfall the glass walls turn into walls of steel as great shutters rise from the floor and turn the place into a sort of Fort Knox. You’d need more than a can opener to get into this place uninvited.

You also need a can opener to find out much about Burrell – for the great public benefactor was a strangely private man. He believed the collection was important, not the collector.

“We must remind ourselves that the distinctive character of the collection was  created from the contradictions of Sir William Burrell’s personality – sharp and sentimental, witty and morose, generous and parsimonious.” reads a biographical note inside the museum. Move around the exhibits and you will find the man.

The Burrell Collection is at Pollok Country Park, 2060 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow G43 1AT (tel: 0141 287 2550). It is open daily.



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