I recently visited the Burrell Collection as part of a trip with the Oriental Ceramics Society (OCS) to Scotland. My last visit had been at the end of 2013 whilst undertaking a valuation with Sotheby’s.
The collection was put together by the Glaswegian shipping magnate Sir William Burrell and was given to the city of Glasgow in 1944. The collection totals around 9000 objects and comprises Chinese porcelain, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, Persian carpets, Medieval stained glass, silver and Impressionist and Scottish Colourist paintings.
The building was originally built in Pollok Country Park in 1983 and had been closed for five years undergoing extensive renovations. This included repairs to the roof and a complete refurbishment of the galleries at a cost of nearly £70m. It re-opened at the end of March this year and the renovation has given a 35% increase in exhibition space to the galleries.
One now enters the building via a new entrance and arrives into a large hall which is centred with an enormous ancient Roman marble Warwick vase, that was discovered at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli around 1771 by the Sottish painter Gavin Hamilton. The vast space is bathed in light as the pitched roof is composed solely of glass panels.
One new feature is the presence of audio visual screens throughout the galleries. These supply the visitor with information in an entertaining and immediate way. One particularly large one, located outside the object store on the lower ground floor, gives a window into the rooms behind showing curatorial staff in the store with objects.
The approach to the Chinese refurbishment was quite different this time. Originally, most of the Chinese collection on view was in one main space on the ground floor. Now it is spread throughout other galleries and exhibits pieces next to those from other countries to illustrate cross cultural relationships and different approaches to ceramic production.
The first Chinese galleries that one approaches from the main hall are those dedicated to sculpture. This space is particularly striking as the walls are predominantly composed of glass. This lends the displays a great deal of natural light, but one also becomes acutely aware of the outside wooded space surrounding the Collection.
A number of the larger works of sculpture are exhibited singly in their own cases in the open space, which allows the viewer to examine pieces from all sides. Some of the smaller works of stone, ceramic and bronze are also placed in cabinets in the open space and also against the gallery walls.
One of the more memorable galleries in the Collection is that dedicated to Ming and Qing monochromes. Five cabinets of white, yellow, red, blue and black wares have been placed in a row and backed with long banners of similar colour. The overall intention in this gallery seems to be more about the sheer joy of colour and its effect on the viewer. Having said that, there are some really interesting pieces displayed, such as a very rare and unusual Xuande mark and period (1426-1435) a white glazed ‘dice’ bowl, a large Kangxi period (1662-1722) two handled yellow glazed vase and a copper-red Xuande mark and period (1426-1435) bowl.
To one side of this gallery, there is a cabinet of celadon wares and another dedicated to purple-splashed Jun wares. Both are again backed with their corresponding green and blue banner. One of the significant pieces in these cabinets was the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) Longquan celadon ewer, which was beautifully potted in the round and covered in a consistent bright green glaze. Another piece from the cabinet that stood out was the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) relief moulded jar and cover. It is quite unusual to find jars of this type decorated with figures in relief.
In the cabinet of Jun wares, the large purple splashed jar cover was the real stand out piece for me. There is usually a sense of incompleteness to just a cover on its own, but the vivid glaze of this example really fired my imagination as to what the jar itself must have looked like.
At the other end wall of the gallery there is a large cabinet of Kangxi period (1662-1722) blue and white wares, comprising predominantly rouleau and yenyen-shaped vases. The majority are painted with figurative landscapes and scenes from nature, such as birds perched on flowers amongst garden rocks.
I have included two detailed images below that are panels from two of the powder-blue ground rouleau vases in the cabinet. Both of these illustrate a real spontaneous style of painting which could only have come from a highly experienced hand.
In a cabinet in the next gallery are some of the best pieces pieces in the collection. It was somewhat of a surprise to have seen such significant pieces all exhibited at such close quarters with somewhat minor ones in one cabinet.
For me, the top highlight of this group is the Yongle period (1403-1424) blue and white lotus tankard and cover. Tankards complete with their covers are particularly rare and this example is really well painted. Tankards of this type are based on Middle Eastern metal work forms.
Another important piece is the Yuan dynasty (1275-1368) plantain and lotus dish. These large dishes were made for the Middle Eastern market and were used in their communal style of dining.
There are three Hongwu period (1368-1398) pieces, two painted in underglaze copper-red, that is a metal-form ewer and a bowl painted with a central band of chrysanthemum. However, the most interesting and rare example from this period is the blue and white dragon meiping vase. Vases of this shape and painted in underglaze blue are particularly rare in the Hongwu reign, as one tends to see a predominance of pieces painted in copper-red in this period and shapes such as dishes, bowls, large jars and ewers.
There is a further cabinet of ceramics in the upstairs galleries, which displays a variety of wares from the Ming (1368-1644) to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Highlights include a Wanli period (1573-1620) blue and white garden seat, a group of Ming dynasty Fahua vases and a Wanli mark and period wucai bat jar.
I do believe that the Burrell Collection is one of the great Museum spaces in the United Kingdom and that the building is so ideally suited to displaying top quality works of art. The recent refurbishment has been very successful in terms of displaying the collection in a really attractive way that is more accessible to a wider audience. It is now a real pleasure to walk through the galleries to see how the art sits so well in this space. Perhaps in the future, there may be the possibility, with the influence of the Chinese curator, to fine tune some of the displays so that the collection can look even better.