Sir William Burrell lived from 9 July 1861 to 29 March 1958. He was a shipping magnate who gifted his huge collection of art to Glasgow City Council. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
William Burrell was born in Glasgow. He joined the family business of Clyde-based shipowners and shipping agents in 1875, at the age of 14, 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 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. 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 at the age of 96 in 1958 at Hutton Castle in the Scottish Borders. 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. The result, which opened in 1983, is a magnificent glass and brick building designed specifically to house the Burrell Collection, and which serves as a fitting tribute to a remarkable entrepreneur. Sir William was knighted in 1927 for his services to art.