Great Scot

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 30

Great Scot

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 30

Great Scot

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 30

Great Scot

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 30

Sir William Burrell was one of the greatest art collectors in British history. Kirsty Wark investigates the man who created the collection and previews a show of selected highlights at Bonhams in London

When Sir William Burrell and his wife Constance bequeathed their personal collection of art and antiques to Sir William's birthplace, Glasgow, in 1944, the city received one of the world's leading single collections. It consisted of more than 9,000 artifacts, works that reflected both Sir William's passion for art and his expert eye. And what a range of works he amassed – from a prehistoric pot, to medieval tapestries, a Rembrandt self-portrait (opposite), Henry VIII's ceremonial bedhead and sculptures by Rodin.

Sir William made his fortune in shipping, and was only too aware of the dangers of objects being lost at sea, so when he made his bequest 14 years before his death, he formally stipulated that nothing should be loaned overseas. Now, 70 years later – and only after the Scottish Parliament passed legislation to enable items to travel for the first time – treasures from the collection will be shown at Bonhams in London ahead of an unprecedented international touring exhibition.

Sir William's wishes have been overturned because museum-quality objects are now very carefully monitored and regularly travel by air freight across oceans and continents without damage or loss. Visitors to Bonhams saleroom in New Bond Street in late December and early January will have an exquisite taste of what audiences around the world will enjoy in the coming years, in a curated selection of Sir William's finest treasures.

The Burrells stipulated that their bequest should be housed in a museum sited at least 16 miles from the city center to avoid the damaging effects of air pollution on the most vulnerable items. However, thanks to Clean Air Act legislation, Sir William's conditions could be modified. In 1983, an impressive, architect-designed building housing the collection was opened by the Queen. It was situated in Pollok Country Park, which had been donated to the city by the Stirling Maxwell family in 1966, and it proved an ideal site. Everyone believed that this solved the problem of housing the collection once and for all. But it didn't take long for several flaws in the building to become all too apparent. There was a problem controlling the humidity. Worse still, the roof leaked.

As these problems have increased over the years, the decision has been taken to undertake a total refurbishment and re-display within the listed building to the highest possible standard. This is a substantial, ambitious project which will realize the city's ambitions to see the Burrell Collection reclaim its rightful place on the international stage.

Born on 9 July 1861, Burrell was the third of nine children in a family of shipping brokers. He joined the family business in 1875 at the age of 14, and, with what must have been his first earnings, he bought a painting at auction for a few shillings. His father chided him, saying the money would have been better spent on a cricket bat.

Burrell eventually took over the business, and he and his brothers struck it rich when they hit upon the strategy of buying up spare shipping capacity during economic downturns when demand was low, and then using or selling these vessels when demand recovered. The family became extraordinarily wealthy and Burrell was able to indulge his voracious appetite passion for collecting. In 1901, for the inauguration of the opening of the city's Palace of Fine Arts (later renamed Kelvingrove Art Gallery), Burrell was a member of one of the committees selected to organize Glasgow's second International Exhibition. It attracted an astonishing 11.5 million visitors, and Burrell himself displayed various items from his already rapidly
expanding collection.

Having again built up a large fleet of modern vessels, the brothers sold most of them during the First World War – at more than three times their original cost. It was at this stage that Burrell effectively retired and devoted the rest of his life to his appreciation of art. Many of the late medieval objects were initially acquired to furnish Burrell's homes – both the elegant town house in the West End of Glasgow, which was his first marital home, and Hutton Castle in the Scottish Borders, where he lived with his wife and daughter from the late 1920s until his death in 1958.

The family's domestic quarters, and even some of the servants' rooms in the castle, were fitted out with works from the collection. But a special group of rooms were carefully arranged as showrooms for some of Sir William's rarest and most important objects. They included bedrooms as well as the drawing room, hall and dining room, which have been included as replicas in the new Burrell Collection building.

The furniture in these rooms – from Tudor and Stuart-period oak tables, chairs and cupboards, to luxuriously-upholstered Georgian armchairs and sofas – was set off by the inclusion of rare oriental carpets, intricately-woven tapestries, and mostly-religious sculptures of stone and wood. Dressers, cupboards and table tops in these rooms were used to display smaller items from the collection, such as fine ceramics and metalwork.

There are more than 200 European tapestries, and over 800 panels of stained and painted glass. The tapestries were, according to Sir William, one of the 'finest' and 'most valuable' groups of medieval objects in his collection. He acquired them during the early years of his collecting, and they covered the walls of his dining room in Glasgow, and later those of the drawing room at Hutton Castle. Many of the stained glass panels, some decorated with heraldic motifs, were inserted into windows at Hutton Castle, something Sir William was particularly keen on.

A very select group of objects related to royalty also form part of the collection. Probably the most important is the ceremonial bedhead made for the ill-fated marriage of King Henry VIII to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. The bedhead is decorated with erotic imagery, but it clearly failed to inspire amorous thoughts: the marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. It was purchased from the dealer John Hunt in 1938 for £800. Burrell wondered whether the German painter Hans Holbein had been involved in the design: as he wrote in his purchase book, "It is known that Holbein was designing furniture for his royal master at this period and the design of the capitals of the columns can be matched on some of the existing drawings for silver cups."

Also royally connected are a silk embroidered bed-valance displaying the monogram of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and pieces of clothing that belonged to the young King Charles II when he was Prince of Wales. Burrell also acquired magnificent Old Master paintings, the most famous of which must be Rembrandt's impressive self-portrait of 1632, which Burrell purchased at the Viscount Rothermere Sale in 1946 for £13,125 - the largest sum he had paid for a work of art until then. (Two years later, Burrell broke his record when he bought Portrait of a Man, attributed to Frans Hals, for £14,500.)

Sir William was also collecting what were at the time relatively modern works of art. French Impressionist paintings were his favorites, as were bronze sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Cézanne's Le Château de Médan is one of the most striking works in the exhibition.

Sir William's collection can only be described as eclectic. There are also items, which are particularly indicative of Sir William's own personal taste, such as Neolithic Chinese burial urns, a 12th-century stone portal from a ruined French church, and the paintings and drawings by Joseph Crawhall, as well as nightcaps and sweet bags. And, like all superb collections, the thread that binds it together is his astonishing eye for quality.

The journalist and television presenter Kirsty Wark has made a film about the Burrell Collection, The Man who Collected the World.

The Burrell Collection will be displayed at Bonhams New Bond Street, London W1 from 15 December to 9 January.
(Closed weekends and from 24 December - 4 January)
Admission is free.

Related auctions