The Glasgow Burrell Museum by John Rattenbury

Secretary Colin & John enjoying a joke

Taking us on a wonderfully descriptive tour of the new Burrell Collection, John Rattenbury enthralled his audience with his indepth knowledge. As Chief Guide Volunteer John began with Burrell’s early years. Born on 9 July 1861 in Glasgow, Burrell was the third of nine children to ship owner William Burrell (1832–1885) and Isabella Duncan (née Guthrie). Burrell’s grandfather, George Burrell, had founded a shipping firm which became known as Burrell & Son. William Burrell was born into a prosperous middle-class family of ship owners. He joined this business in 1875, at the age of 14. When his father died in 1885, he and his brother George took over the business while still in their twenties and transformed it into one of the leading Forth & Clyde Canal cargo shipping companies in Britain. William had a natural flair for business and realised the railways were a major threat, therefore sold the business using capital to order ships from the desperate Clyde ship yards and earned himself a sizeable fortune by then selling off most of his ships for many times more than what he had paid, during the first world war.

Burrell had developed an interest in art as a boy and he used his wealth to steadily build his collection, quickly surpassing his local contemporaries in terms of the quantity and quality of his artworks and firmly established an international reputation as a collector of good taste and judgement. Burrell had an innate talent for art collecting. He understood what he was buying, and his refined taste led him to areas that other collectors dared not touch. His primary passion was for Gothic art and he built an outstanding collection of medieval and Renaissance tapestries, stained glass and furniture. His collection of Chinese bronzes and ceramics is one of the most comprehensive in the country, and his collection of French impressionists contains numerous masterpieces by Manet and especially Degas. Burrell collected the largest number of Degas works of any collector in Britain. He was a faithful patron of Scottish artists including Joseph Crawhall, George and John Lavery.

He commissioned Lavery to paint a portrait of his sister Mary Burrell in 1896. This portrait was exhibited widely and is considered one of Lavery’s finest works.

Burrell used his wealth to advance himself in society and to purchase Hutton Castle in Berwickshire, where his Gothic collections were displayed to great effect. But his wealth and art collection were not simply for personal gain. Burrell had a deep sense of public duty, serving for long periods as a local councillor in Glasgow and Berwickshire, and as a trustee of the National Gallery in London. He wished to use his art collection for public good and lent large parts of it to galleries around the country so that as many people as possible could enjoy it. In 1927 he was knighted for his public and political work and services to art in Scotland.

Unlike most collectors, his collection was not sold or bequeathed for personal or family gain. He donated the majority of his collection to Glasgow in 1944, which at the time amounted to 6,000 items. He continued to add to collection so that today it amounts to a staggering 9,000 artworks. He also donated smaller parts of his collection to Berwick-upon-Tweed and several other provincial galleries, with the aim of enhancing the cultural standing of these places.

In 1944 Burrell donated his collection to the city of Glasgow. At the time of his gift to Glasgow the collection was valued at well in excess of £1 million, and it came with an additional £450,000 in cash to build a dedicated museum for it. This was a major act of philanthropy. Burrell simply wanted people to gain as much pleasure from art as he had, and to improve their lives through a better understanding and appreciation of beauty.

Burrell had clear intentions regarding the collection’s location, contents and display, and he stated that the collection was to be housed ‘in a suitable distinct and separated building’ that was to be ‘within four miles of Killearn, Stirlingshire, and not less than sixteen miles from Glasgow Royal exchange’. These conditions proved impossible and it was not until the city of Glasgow acquired Pollock Country Park in 1967 that a museum in the spirit of his wishes could be built. A custom-built museum, the Burrell Collection, was finally opened in 1983.

The Burrell Collection reopened on March 2022 in Glasgow following a £68.25m redevelopment that has seen the museum become a greener and more accessible building having been closed for refurbishment since 23 October 2016 its collection of almost 9,000 items is managed by Glasgow Life on behalf of Glasgow City Council. The museum’s gallery space has increased by 35%, which has allowed new objects to go on display. There are 225 displays across 24 galleries.

What a wonderful knowledgeable presentation by John, endorsed by a worthy vote of thanks by Douglas Haddow