Since 1983, Glasgow's Pollok Park has been home to the magnificent glass and brick building designed specifically to house the Burrell Collection, some 8,000 works of art collected during his lifetime by the shipping magnate, Sir William Burrell, and gifted to Glasgow City Council in 1944.
The story behind the Burrell Collection and its eventual arrival in Pollok Park is a fascinating one. But from the point of view of a visitor planning a day out, the background is less important than a sense of what you are likely to find when you arrive, and a means of deciding whether a tour of the Burrell Collection is likely to seem time well spent. The simple answers are: "a magnificent collection in a superb building" and "yes".
The Burrell Collection is probably best appreciated when contrasted with somewhere like Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum. Both are run in the same friendly and relaxed style by Glasgow City Council; both have the same opening hours; and both are free of any admission charge. The contrasts start to emerge when you explore the two collections, both in terms of their content and, especially, in the buildings that house them. While Kelvingrove showcases the municipal collection of what was once "the second city of the British Empire" in a Victorian building opulent enough to be a palace, The Burrell Collection is one man's collection, housed in a modern building that, though very different, is every bit as impressive in its own way as Kelvingrove.
It was always intended that the Burrell Collection should be housed in a rural setting. When Pollok House and the 361 acre Pollok Park were given to Glasgow City Council in 1966, the idea of building a new home within the park for the collection was a fairly obvious one. Once the decision was made, an architectural competition was launched. This was won in 1971 by the architect Barry Gasson. The winning design was for the gallery you can see in the header image. It was designed to complement both the collection and its parkland setting. The Burrell Collection eventually opened to the public in its new home in 1983.
The gallery housing the collection lies within a large grassy clearing surrounded by woodland. Rather than being placed centrally within the clearing, the almost triangular building has been built with its longest face close against the edge of the trees. As this face is constructed largely of glass, the effect is to give the feeling that the gallery actually merges into the woods.
You gain access to the Burrell Collection via an oblong brick entrance hall that projects from one apex of the underlying triangular shape. Once beyond the reception and shop, you find yourself in a vast courtyard in which, if the sun is shining, you encounter for the first time one of the building's defining characteristics, the huge range of lighting conditions on offer. This means that the south face of the gallery provides an ideal home for the large collection of stained glass on view, seen at its best with the coloured sunlight being projected into the interior of the gallery. At the junction of the east and south faces of the gallery, a lower level extension out into the surrounding grassland provides space for the large Burrell Café.
The long, woodland face of the gallery provides a magnificent home for the main collections of oriental art, artefacts of ancient civilisations, and medieval and post medieval European art. As you wander through, for the first time you begin to gain an understanding of the breadth of interests of Sir William Burrell. Much of the interior of the building is kept in very subdued light. Here you find the rooms that house some of Sir William's large collection of even larger tapestries.
Surrounding three sides of the courtyard are enclosed rooms. These are faithful reconstructions of the dining room, hall and drawing room of Sir William Burrell's home, Hutton Castle, near Berwick-upon-Tweed, fully furnished as they would have been in the 1930s. There is a sense in which the rest of the gallery is designed and built around these three rooms, and it is certainly within them that you feel closest to the lifestyle of the man behind the collection.
Perhaps the highlight of a tour around the Burrell Collection is the mezzanine area which is home to Sir William's collection of paintings. The paintings themselves form only a small part of the overall collection, but, especially for fans of the French impressionists, they are a "must see" part of it. But a visit to the mezzanine floor is also fascinating for the different perspective it gives on many of the ground floor galleries.
Some art critics have been a little sniffy about Sir William Burrell's collecting choices, and the real merit of some of the 8,000 items he collected. But in any matter of taste, it is unlikely that a collection formed by an individual will ever appeal to everyone. Perhaps the best summary of what the Burrell Collection represents is given in the introduction to the official guidebook, where John Julius Norwich comments: "...in all history, no municipality has ever received from one of its native sons a gift of such munificence as that which, in 1944, the City of Glasgow accepted from Sir William and Lady Burrell."
So who was Sir William Burrell? Born in Glasgow in 1861, he joined the family business of Clyde-based shipowners and shipping agents in 1875, and ten years later took over control of the business with his older brother, George. In an entrepreneurial age, he showed a degree of business acumen that put many of his contemporaries to shame. In 1893, Scottish shipbuilding and shipping was going through a cyclic depression, and most of Burrell's competitors were trying to cut their costs and trim their businesses. William Burrell's response was to order twelve new ships for his fleet, at a time when demand was so poor that Clyde shipyards were offering giveaway prices just to stay in work. By the time these were built, the economic cycle had revolved and within a short time Burrell had sold every ship in his fleet, all at huge profits, and gone into semi-retirement: all before he was 40.
A decade later, Burrell returned from retirement to repeat the trick, only on a larger scale. He ordered 20 ships in 1905 when prices were once more very low, and eight more in 1909. The Burrell fleet was again sold off in the years between 1913 and 1916, again at huge profit. This time Sir William, by now in his late 50s, retired completely from his shipping interests, so he could to focus all his attention, and his by now huge wealth, on his real passion, collecting art.
Sir William began buying works of art before he was out of his teens, and continued until just before his death at the age of 96 in 1958. In the early years he spent no more than £500 per year on art, but this increased to over £20,000 per year from 1911 to 1957. He purchased from a wide range of dealers and brought to his collecting the hard-edged business acumen that had served him so well as a shipping magnate. By the time he donated his collection to the city of his birth in 1944, it amounted to 6,000 items. He also gave Glasgow £450,000 to build a gallery in which his collection could be displayed and, with Glasgow's agreement (and the gallery as yet unbuilt), continued to use the interest on this donation to expand the collection further, adding 2,000 more items between 1944 and 1957.
A suitable site for the gallery has still not been found by the time of Sir William's death. It was only when Pollok House and Park was donated to the City by Mrs Anne Maxwell Macdonald in 1966 that a way forward emerged. It would be nice to think that if Sir William Burrell were still alive today he would approve of the home built for his amazing collection. He probably would, but you get the feeling that if he were alive today, he'd be so busy trying to add to the collection that he wouldn't have much time simply to wander round and enjoy what he already had.