Burrell’s family tree and how the William’s Glasgow art collection came about



The Burrell Collection in Glasgow will reopen in March 2022 after an ambitious building upgrade and re-display. When the world-class collection was donated to the city of Glasgow in 1944, it was donated on behalf of Sir William and his wife Constance, Lady Burrell.

Before the reopening, we took a look at Burrell’s family tree and how the collection came to be in Glasgow.

Sir William Burrell was a famous Glasgow art collector. He was born in his family’s apartment at 3 Scotia Street in 1865, but spent most of his childhood growing up in Bowling, Kirkpatrick, between Clydebank and Dumbarton.

Sir William Burrell’s father was William Burrell Sr. who had inherited the Burrell shipping business from his father, George, after 1873. George had established Burrell & Son in Glasgow in the 1850s as a shipping agency for the canal Forth and Clyde. He quickly added international shipping orders and shipbuilding to the business.

William Burrell Snr

With William in Glasgow, his brother Henry worked as a shipping agent in Grangemouth, at the other end of the Forth and Clyde Canal. George’s sons, George junior and Alexander, together started a Glasgow-based business in ship shops from the 1880s. The Burrell family focused on the shipping industry.

William Burrell senior married Isabella Guthrie in 1856 when Burrell & Son was expanding. Isabella was the daughter of a coal agent and knew the family through her shipping company, which moved goods from place to place.

Isabelle Burrell
Isabelle Burrell

William and Isabella had nine children of which their eldest sons George and William took Burrell & Son after school in the 1870s. By the 1880s the Burrell fleet of ships was family owned and shares were offered privately. Under these young Burrells, the business has grown like never before. The Burrell company was already well established in the Glasgow business community in the Stock Exchange district and its reputation is growing. His income enabled them to buy new homes and art collections.

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William stayed at ‘Elmbank’, the large family home of Bowling. He worked in Glasgow at the company’s offices in George Square. In 1885 William Sr. died and his business and estate passed to his wife, George and William. Isabella and William moved closer to Glasgow in the 1890s and lived at 4 Devonshire Gardens with William Isabella and Mary’s sisters. Life in and around Devonshire Gardens has kept the family close to close relatives on the west end of Glasgow.

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As fame and wealth grew, William sought to own his own home and settle down. A family vacation abroad in the 1890s gave him the opportunity to collect works of art and invited architect Robert Lorimer to join him on his travels to study potential purchases of his collections. Lorimer was tasked with helping Burrell find a Scottish castle for his family and a place where he could also house his growing collection. William and George’s art collections have grown even further thanks to their sponsorship of artists from Glasgow. They regularly loaned their collections for exhibitions and presentations.

In 1899 Burrell entered politics and was elected as one of the councilors of the Glasgow Corporation, representing the Exchange Ward. The business community and like-minded art collectors supported him. Burrell was also a useful intermediary for the Society’s relations with artists. William and the Burrell family’s art collections and their connection to galleries and artists would soon be heard. In 1901, William married Constance Ralston Mitchell who shared her passion for art.

Constance burrell
Constance burrell

The William and George Burrell collections represented the family’s ties to Glasgow artists, art dealers and exhibitions. They shared the patronage of artists such as Lavery, Guthrie and Crawhall, and purchased French Impressionist art. The family presents itself as a patron of art and artists.

Girl on bicycle, Joseph Crawhall
Girl on bicycle, Joseph Crawhall

William Burrell collected more works by Glasgow Boy Joseph Crawhall than any other artist. Sir John Lavery’s portrait of Mary Burrell has been on loan for public exhibitions abroad and at home. Other works of art from the William and George collections have been loaned for exhibitions. They broadened the public’s perception of the family’s reputation for success in business, art collection and patronage.

Portrait of Miss Mary Burrell
Portrait of Miss Mary Burrell (William’s sister)

From the letters of architect Robert Lorimer on vacations with the Burrell family, it is clear that William and Constance shared a taste for historical collections. Over time, Lorimer would provide domestic architecture for his art collection, ranging from antique-style sculptures depicting their names to larger public rooms.

It was also in 1901 that William Burrell and the family’s collections were exhibited at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum as part of the International Exhibition. Burrell himself also organized one of the Royal Reception Halls with works from his own collections and those of his brother George, as well as others. Elsewhere in the exhibits were other works of art belonging to himself and the wider Burrell family, ranging from paintings to decorative arts.

Eleven million visitors have seen it. Here, Burrell’s collections celebrated the family’s ties to Glasgow’s political management, the administration of this international exhibition, and their friendships with artists and other collectors. The exhibition announced Glasgow’s status as the second city in the British Empire.

Kelvingrove Museum
Kelvingrove Museum

Royal reception hall hosted by William Burrell
Royal reception hall organized by William Burrell at the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1901

This triumphant exhibition proclaimed the importance of Constance to the Burrell collection. After the wedding, the newly married couple bought a house near the parental home at 8 Great Western Terrace. They hired their friend Lorimer as an architect to host their art collections.

8 Great Western Terrace Burrell's First Home, dining room
8 Great Western Terrace Burrell’s First Home, dining room

Subsequent correspondence between Burrell and Lorimer makes it clear how Burrell viewed the collection as being shared by himself and Constance and for his future accommodation at Hutton Castle to reflect his wishes and tastes. It was here that Sir William met Tom Honeyman, Director of Glasgow Art Galleries, and revealed that he and his wife donate their entire collection to the city of Glasgow. It would be one of the greatest gifts the city has ever received.

Hutton Castle
Hutton Castle

When the newly refurbished and redesigned Burrell Collection reopens in March 2022, it is hoped that many more people will be able to enjoy the incredible gift of Sir William and Lady Constance to Glasgow. One of the largest personal collections in the world, it is renowned for the quality of its Chinese art, exquisite stained glass windows, intricate tapestries, and the breadth of its fine art.

The Wagner Burrell carpet collection
The Wagner rug

The Burrell Collection in Glasgow, which is run by the Glasgow Life charity, will reopen in March 2022 following an ambitious modernization and reposting of the building. For more information www.burrellcollection.com.

In our next article, we’ll take a look at some of the highlights of Burrell’s exquisite collection.



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