The outstanding Burrell Collection, the lifetime collection of shipping magnate Sir William Burrell (1861–1958), is, for some, the principal reason for visiting Glasgow. Sir William’s only real criterion for buying a piece was whether he liked it or not, enabling him to buy many unfashionable works that cost comparatively little but subsequently proved their worth.
The simplicity and clean lines of the Burrell building are superb, with large picture windows giving sweeping views over woodland and serving as a tranquil backdrop to the objects inside. An airy covered courtyard includes the Warwick Vase, a huge bowl containing fragments of a second-century AD vase from Emperor Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. On three sides of the courtyard, a trio of dark and sombre panelled rooms have been re-erected in faithful detail from the Burrells’ Hutton Castle home, their tapestries, antique furniture and fireplaces displaying the same eclectic taste as the rest of the museum.
Elsewhere on the ground floor, Greek, Roman and earlier artefacts include an exquisite mosaic Roman cockerel from the first century BC and a 4000-year-old Mesopotamian lion’s head. Nearby, also illuminated by enormous windows, the excellent Oriental Art collection forms nearly a quarter of the whole display, ranging from Neolithic jades through bronze vessels and Tang funerary horses to cloisonné. Burrell considered his medieval and post-medieval European art, which encompasses silverware, glass, textiles and sculpture, to be the most valuable part of his collection: these are ranged across a maze of small galleries.
Upstairs, the cramped and comparatively gloomy mezzanine is probably the least satisfactory section of the gallery, not the best setting for its sparkling array of paintings by artists that include Degas, Manet, Cézanne and Boudin.