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April 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1429

The Burrell Collection

Reviewed by Beth McKillop

The reopening last month of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, brought to a conclusion an ambitious museum renovation with sustainability at its heart. This £68.25 million project, funded by Glasgow City Council, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the governments of Scotland and the United Kingdom, has involved a complete overhaul by the architects John McAslan + Partners of the building designed by Barry Gasson, John Meunier and Brit Andresen for the collection formed by the Glasgow shipping magnate William Burrell (1861–1958), which opened to the public in 1983. Although it was disappointing that the building required a fundamental restoration less than four decades after its completion – necessitating its closure to the public in the autumn of 2016 – John McAslan + Partners deserve praise for the respect and rigour they have brought to the task of refreshing the home of a world-class collection that is still too little known outside Scotland.

To coincide with the reopening, Martin Bellamy and Isobel MacDonald have published a new biography of Burrell.[1] His achievement is more remarkable when his background is taken into account: he left formal education at fourteen and was entirely self-taught in his artistic endeavours. Nonetheless he managed to create a major collection of Gothic and Renaissance textiles, stained glass, sculpture and painting. He also formed important groups of Chinese and Middle Eastern ceramics and decorative arts and nineteenth-century European paintings, prints and drawings. Much of the collection was installed at Hutton Castle, near Berwick-upon-Tweed, which Burrell and his wife, Constance, purchased in 1916. He also collected monumental architectural elements, such as a sixteenth-century heraldic sandstone gateway from Hornby Castle, Yorkshire, demolished in 1930, and a sixteenth-century carved oak ceiling from a house in Bridgwater, Somerset. The latter, together with historic windows and doors, was acquired from the collection of William Randolph Hearst as part of Burrell’s plan for a museum in which his works of art would be placed in settings evoking domestic interiors, rather than neutral galleries.

Burrell gifted his collection to the City of Glasgow in 1944, after over two decades of thoughtful, planned lending to museums in Scotland and England.[2] He continued to add works up to his death. He set two principal conditions on the gift: the collection was to be housed in a building in a country setting at least sixteen miles from the centre of Glasgow, to avoid the effects of air pollution, and loans could be made only within the United Kingdom. Largely because of the search for a suitable site, four decades passed before the collection was in Pollok Country Park on Glasgow’s south side.[3] In 2014 the Burrell’s trustees obtained an Act of Parliament to enable them to make international loans, a freedom exploited in touring exhibitions of highlights of the collection made while the building was closed. Burrell’s gift included an endowment, which continues to support the museum’s work – by the acquisition, for example, in 2021 of a bronze, L’Implorante, by Camille Claudel (1864–1943), the first sculpture by a woman in the collection and a complement to the fourteen pieces by Rodin acquired by Burrell.

Visitors to the Burrell Collection encounter a restful building of sandstone, wood, glass and steel, set in parkland that forms a natural and sympathetic setting for the objects in the collection. The generously sized rooms and passages evoke the Scottish baronial atmosphere of the Burrells’ home and the soaring interior spaces in which the tapestries and carpets are installed deftly play with light and shade, dissolving the boundaries between exterior and interior in a way that is both rhythmic and calm (Fig.1). Stained glass, a well-known strength of the Burrell Collection, numbering around six hundred pieces, is strikingly displayed in the floor-to-ceiling windows of the entrance galleries. With particular strengths in German and Low Countries glass, the collection also includes a panel depicting Princess Cecily of York (1469–1507), a daughter of Edward IV (Fig.2), made for Canterbury Cathedral.

Any substantial intervention into a building of such unique personal character is likely to lead to gains as well as losses. The losses include two of the room sets that recreated interiors in Hutton Castle. The gains lie first and foremost in the fundamental viability of the building, which has been made air and watertight; all its glass has been renewed. The entrance has been moved, creating more generous circulation space, and there is a commitment, over time, to improve energy management. Importantly, the proportion of the collection on display has increased by one third, partly by the conversion of former offices into galleries. A gallery for temporary exhibitions has been created and an open storage area has been introduced on the lower floor, next to a stepped atrium for events in which visitors can also sit at ease and learn more about the collection on digital screens. The architects have also landscaped the immediate surroundings, creating improved access routes, as part of a wider effort to encourage more and longer visits to Pollok Country Park. John McAslan has spoken of producing a ‘bigger, greener, more welcoming space’ and in this the project is a resounding success.

In the years since the opening of the Burrell, research into the collection has continued apace. A book by Vivien Hamilton, the Research Manager for Art at Glasgow Museums, on the French paintings, pastels and works on paper, which include works by Corot, Manet, Degas and Cézanne, is in progress, and the collection’s Chinese art is the subject of a digital resource, ‘Chinese Art – Research into Provenance’.[4] Led by Nicholas Pearce of the University of Glasgow, this mines the copious and informative records of Burrell’s collecting in this field in a case study that boosts knowledge about the reception of Chinese art in the United Kingdom during the twentieth century. It includes essays about the prominent dealers who sold to Burrell, including Bluett & Sons, John Sparks Ltd and Frank Partridge. Burrell collected sculpture, jades and bronzes, but ceramics form the largest part of his Chinese holdings. Exceptionally wide-ranging in both chronology and technical accomplishment, they encompass Yangshao culture coiled pots with geometric painted decoration, made c.3000 BC in north China, and impressive sancai ‘three colour’ glazed Tang dynasty funerary wares. There are also exquisite Song dynasty monochromes glazed in jade green, and iron-rich black Jian ware tea bowls. Architectural ceramics, Kraak porcelain for the export market and Kangxi wares are also on show together with an extremely rare Hongwu period meiping (plum blossom) vase (Fig.4). In the display of the Chinese pieces, the designers have introduced a few carefully placed digital screens presenting high-quality images of a Kangxi meiping with an Islamic inscription and a Shang dynasty jue (bronze tripod libation cup) with a dragonhead handle. These are intended to enhance close examination of the original objects, especially during group visits or busy times, to avoid crowding round wall-mounted cases.

A highlight of the museum is the collection of tapestries, numbering over two hundred items, which forms the subject of a substantial book, Tapestries from the Burrell Collection by Elizabeth Cleland and Lorraine Karafel, published in 2017. Tapestries from France, Germany, the Low Countries and England were collected with discernment and persistence, after the young Burrell had travelled in Europe to look at examples and learn about them. He regarded the tapestries as the most valuable part of his collection, as is evident from his careful records of the sums he spent on them. The remarkable tapestry Fight between a falcon and a heron (Fig.3) was bought in 1936 for £2,200 according to Burrell’s purchase books. It is distinguished by subtle colour effects that accentuate the recession from the front register, with its animals and people, back towards distant houses and mountains. It has been suggested by William Wells that this celebration of the pleasure of hunting formed part of a lost series of French royal tapestries known as the Hunts of François I, who might therefore be the rider of the white horse.[5]

The Burrell gift to the City of Glasgow has been widely acclaimed – ‘no municipality has ever received from one of its native sons a gift of such munificence’, wrote John Julius Norwich in 1983.[6] Now that the building has been comprehensively upgraded, and with improvements to its tranquil country-park setting, the collection can finally settle into a harmonious relationship with its host city. One hopes that visitors will make their way to Pollok Country Park in large numbers, not only during the first flush of enthusiasm for the beautifully upgraded building and galleries but also in decades to come. Glasgow Life, the charity that delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities on behalf of Glasgow City Council, has emphasised the city’s desire to build pride in its history and cultural offerings. Both the Burrell and another under-appreciated museum in Pollok Country Park, the Stirling-Maxwell collection of old-master paintings at Pollok House, have the potential to play a leading role in that plan.


1 M. Bellamy and I. Macdonald: William Burrell: A Collector’s Life, Edinburgh 2022.

2 Ibid., pp.105 and 136–37.

3 For an account of the collection when it opened to the public, see ‘Editorial: The Burrell Collection’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 125 (1983), pp.724–27.

4, accessed 10th March 2022.

5 On this suggestion, see E. Cleland and L. Karafel: Tapestries from The Burrell Collection, Glasgow 2017, p.353.

6 J.J. Norwich: The Burrell Collection, London and Glasgow 1983, p.7.