After closing for extensive renovations in 2016, the Burrell museum, home to one of the greatest personal art collections ever bequeathed to the public, reopened in March 2022. Now, as its first major exhibition opens, it’s hard to avoid the fact that in those six years the political and cultural landscape in Britain has radically changed.
There is much greater focus on issues of provenance, gender and ethnicity, especially in the context of the decolonising public spaces – which is basically about ridding these places of the inherent racism that is a direct result of Britain’s imperial endeavours.
The new exhibition looks in detail at the lives of its benefactors, Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell, through the curation of more than 100 pieces taken from their collection. The Burrells’ Legacy: A Great Gift to Glasgow (which runs till April 16 2023), contains rarely seen works of art including two entirely new additions, a beautifully rendered painting called The Mallard Rising (see main image above) by Joseph Crawhall, and an exquisite bronze sculpture called l'Implorante by little-known French sculptor Camille Claudel (see final image below).
Burrell, the Glasgow-born shipping magnate was one of the UK’s most prolific philanthropists who gifted his collection of 6,000 works of art to his home city in 1944. He continued to develop his collection, aiming for it to be more globally representative, and amassed a total of 9,000 works spanning three continents and 6,000 years, before his death in 1958.
Art and empire
His business success was founded at a time when Victorian Glasgow was the workshop of the world and the second city of the British empire. Burrell was one of a class of industrial elites who used their wealth to increase their social prominence by amassing extraordinary collections of art and antiquities.
So how does this much-loved and unique collection sit within the cultural landscape today? Set against a backdrop of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, historical monuments and collections are facing public scrutiny like never before. Collections are critiqued around their works’ provenance, history and how their acquisition were funded.
It is down to the integrity of Burrell and his knowledge of the world of art and antiquities at that time that there are so few provenance issues associated with his vast collection, although there have been several recent notable exceptions around artworks appropriated by the Nazis.
But in Glasgow, people are less concerned about issues pertaining to the Burrell Collection’s imperial context than they are about the cost of upgrading it at a time of closures and failings in the upkeep on commuity facilities across the city.
Still, this doesn’t avoid the fact that the collection was gathered at the height of the British empire, whose social norms and politics of exploitation sit uneasily with the drive to present alternative cultural perspectives today – meaning the voices of the people and cultures where the art originated.
A supporter of living artists, Burrell was guided by prominent art dealers and academics in developing his knowledge around art and history. He was a Scottish Presbyterian with a deep sense of public service, a trustee of several national institutions and was involved in local politics.
He regularly loaned his artworks to different galleries around the country, wishing to share his developing art collection with others. His artworks were particularly prominent at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901.
His collection offered those who wished to improve their lives through the appreciation of beauty and craft an opportunity to share in his legacy. Today, many regard the quality of the Burrell Collection as unsurpassed, rivalling major international art museums.
This new exhibition provides an insight into the life of the Burrells and their collections of beautiful objects and works of art. These include artefacts of ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, Ming Dynasty vases, 19th-century romantic French paintings and delicate Japanese woodcut prints. There is high renaissance stained-glass set against medieval armour, Persian tapestries contrasting delicate lace, and rare pieces of furniture.
The two new acquisitions are stunning: Mallard Rising is a painting by Joseph Crawhall, who was one of the leading Glasgow Boys – an influential group of artists who rebelled against stuffy cultural Victorian norms; and the small bronze statue is by Camille Claudel, best known as Auguste Rodin’s lover and assistant, but a gifted – if largely unrecognised – sculptor in her own right.
Highlights are the exquisite and intact gilded mummy casing of an Ibis from ancient Egypt; the Chinese Ming Wanli period porcelain jar with five-clawed dragons; Théodore Géricault’s radiant painting The Prancing Grey Horse; the burse for the great Seal of England – a stunning ceremonial bag, embroidered in silk with silver and gilt threads; and finally an old favourite, the dynamic Japanese woodcut print of Shoki the Demon Queller, king of the ghosts.
Ultimately the pieces in this exhibition reflect the preferences, tastes and perspectives of William Burrell and the bias of his era is inherent within this formerly private collection. The broader collection from which these pieces have been chosen holds predominately white, male, Eurocentric, colonial perspectives at its core.
Female works are sparse and mainly comprise lace and embroidery. The exhibition avoids looking at the artworks through any gendered lens and exclusively reflects the taste of Burrell and his wife. The acquisition of the Claudel sculpture by the trust is a gesture towards more inclusivity, but it stands out as an exception rather than the rule.
What does an exhibition like this say about how culture is created? Those in powerful positions shape and influence the nature of art through their purchases and their specific choices around support of the arts. They reinforce their status through being seen as arbiters of good taste and elevate what they think should be valued as art. Art and culture is given to Glaswegians to look at and admire, where perhaps more time could be spent on people making their own culture and art in their own communities.
Even though this collection is of huge historical importance in its own right, it does not give the audience any socio-historical context or try to create a relationship with more modern contemporary types of art. It looks backwards to a time of empire with no attempt to bridge the gap between the world then and the world now. Perhaps the Burrell’s curators will come to consider these broader, modernising themes alongside managing and maintaining such a mammoth collection.