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Issue 54 - Sir William Burrell 1861-1958

Scotland Magazine Issue 54
December 2010


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Sir William Burrell 1861-1958

Glasgow's wheeler and dealer

If you have heard the name Sir William Burrell before, you are probably thinking of the Burrell Collection. No one who has seen that monumental art collection could forget the experience, but perhaps this is a case of a man’s work obscuring the identity of the man himself.

William Burrell was born in Glasgow on 9th July 1861 to a family of shipping merchants. He was the third of nine children and at the age of 14 followed the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him, working for the family firm. He was still only in his early 20s when his father died and he took over the business with his brother, George.

The duo made a devastating business partnership. George handled the engineering and all matters technical. William was the wheelerdealer, the risk-taker, and ultimately the money-maker.

Their technique was simple. In times of depression, when their competitors were most cautious, Burrell ordered large stocks of ships at rock bottom prices. Ship-builders were desperate to stay in business.

By the time the ships were ready the market was recovering and Burrell could make a huge profit from running cargo and then selling the ships at the top of the market. The brothers could then lie low, waiting for the next slump in the market.

Burrell had a real eye for a bargain but he also appreciated the more complex value of art. He was fascinated by art from a young age and had an inbuilt desire to collect and accumulate.

He was involved in the organisation of the Glasgow International Art Exhibition in 1901 and put a vast sum of money into the art world during his long life.

He was 40 years old before he got around to marrying. His bride was several years younger than him; Constance Mitchell, the daughter of another shipping merchant.

By the end of the First World War, Burrell had made enough money to retire for good. He had sold his entire fleet between 1913 and 1916, when demand for ships was unprecedented.

He devoted himself to full-time art collection.

His growing passion for this can be seen in his expenditure, which was only about £500 per year in the early years, rising to nearly £80,000 in 1936.

By this time his services to art and his public work had been recognised at the highest levels. Burrell was knighted in 1927.

His collection was always broad. He never specialised but wanted to represent many periods, styles and media. Examples include medieval tapestries, sculptures, Roman glass, bronzes, ivories, furniture and Persian rugs. And of course paintings, from Couture, Manet and Monticelli to Whistler, Crawhall and Degas.

Burrell wanted it all.

In later life, Burrell’s thoughts turned to the long-term prospects for his collection. No doubt the idea of his life’s work being picked apart and redistributed across the world was distressing.

In 1944 he donated his collection to the City of Glasgow, setting rather stringent conditions for the display of his collection. As well as donating the art itself, he gave Glasgow the money to build a suitable home for his collection, insisting that it be within sixteen miles of the Royal Exchange in Glasgow and within four miles of Killearn, Stirlingshire. A rural setting was also required.

This presented difficulties for the councillors and officials tasked with finding the right location.

They did not succeed until after Burrell’s death, when Mrs Anne Maxwell Macdonald gave over Pollok House and estate to the City of Glasgow in the 1960s. This allowed the perfect park setting for the Burrell Collection, though the building to house the collection did not open until 1983.

While discussions took place about the eventual venue for his collection, Burrell arranged for it to be displayed at his home, Hutton Castle in the Scottish Borders. He continued to supplement and complete his collection until it reached about 8,000 items. He only stopped when he became too ill to continue. Burrell died at home on 29th March 1958, aged 96.