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The Burrell Collection (Glasgow)

The Burrell Collection (Glasgow)

Donna Dailey - 2007-12-14

Glasgow's treasure-packed Burrell Collection is small but perfectly formed. Wealthy shipping agent Sir William Burrell may not have been able to match the resources of millionaire collectors such as Hearst or Getty, but he used his good taste and collecting acumen to amass one of the finest art collections in Europe.

Burrell went to work in the family firm at the age of 14. Ten years later, in 1885, his father died and he took over the firm’s management with his brother George.
The business prospered and in 1918 they sold off most of the Burrell shipping fleet. William invested his profits shrewdly and turned his attention to his life-long passion – art.
 
By then he was already an important and respected collector. He began by buying pieces for his personal pleasure, and the bulk of the collection reflects his interest in Medieval European art, Oriental ceramics and bronzes and European paintings. Much later, he added works from the ancient civilisations of the world.
 
In 1944, Burrell gave his collection to the City of Glasgow, though he continued adding to it until his death in 1958, at the age of 97. However, it was many more years before Glaswegians could enjoy his generosity. Mindful of the harmful effects of air pollution on ancient art, Burrell stipulated that the collection must be housed outside the city centre. It took a long while for the perfect site to become available, but the wait was worthwhile: the Burrell Collection is now housed in leafy surroundings 5 kilometres southwest of central Glasgow in Pollok Country Park.
 
As you approach along a woodland path, the simple building of wood and sandstone, which opened in 1983, seems unimposing at first glance. But once you are inside, Burrell’s foresight in demanding a rural location becomes instantly apparent.
 
Floor-to-ceiling windows bathe the artworks in natural light, while the backdrop of trees and greenery beyond make an attractive change from the white walls of most museums. The stained glass collection is stunningly backlit along one corridor. Medieval stone doorways and arcades from the collection are also integrated into the modern design in a way that is surprisingly harmonious and effective.
 
Surrounding the courtyard are three rooms reconstructed from Burrell’s last home, Hutton Castle, complete with gothic furniture and enormous fireplaces.
 
Two rooms dedicated to Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome are the first indication that ‘small is beautiful’. A choice selection of vases, burial figures, sculptures and artefacts are contained in a handful of cases. Every one is worth lingering over, but the Head of Zeus (or Poseidon) is definitely the highlight here.
 
The more extensive collection of Chinese art ranges from Neolithic burial urns to exquisite porcelain and jades. Islamic artworks include early ceramics and beautiful carpets and rugs.
 
Several rooms are devoted to European art and furniture from medieval times to the 17th century. The tapestry galleries hold some of the museum’s greatest treasures – look out for the delightful Peasants Hunting Rabbits with Ferrets – but the intricate beadwork baskets and examples of raised ‘stump work’ in the Needlework Room are equally impressive.
 
In keeping with Burrell’s vision of displaying works in a period setting, two of his most valuable paintings – the Portrait of a Gentleman by Franz Hals’ and a Self Portrait by Rembrandt – are hung in rooms decorated with 17th-century furniture. By contrast, the mezzanine floor is devoted to stunning works of art by 19th-century French artists, including Degas, Cézanne and Boudin.
 
Burrell often said that the collection is the important thing, not the collector. But here amidst his treasures, where the richness of mankind’s achievements are on display, it is hard not to be in awe of both.
 
The Burrell Collection
2060 Pollokshaws Road
Tel. 0141 287 2550

Glasgow's treasure-packed Burrell Collection is small but perfectly formed. Wealthy shipping agent Sir William Burrell may not have been able to match the resources of millionaire collectors such as Hearst or Getty, but he used his good taste and collecting acumen to amass one of the finest art collections in Europe.

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