Tampering with Sir William Burrell’s last request may jeopardise the possibility of philanthropic gestures in the future, writes Tiffany Jenkins
The Burrell Collection in Glasgow is a tranquil place, a visit to which is restorative. The gallery contains superb works of art and artefacts – over 8,000 objects – including paintings from Degas, Whistler and Cezanne. They hang alongside glorious medieval stained-glass, sculptures and tapestries, next to art from northern Europe, and fine Chinese ceramics, bronzes and jades, as well as Japanese prints. There is even the matrimonial bed-head that belonged to King Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves.
The eclectic nature of the collection, and the exceptional quality of many of the works, are not the only reasons why the gallery is special. It remains, for the most part, a quiet and peaceful space, arranged to allow one to muse without being disturbed by noise, interactive gadgets, and labels that talk down to you, which is all too common in other cultural centres.
Situated in a woodland setting, in Pollok Park, it is a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
But changes are planned that will have a dramatic effect on the Burrell Collection Whilst undoubtedly conducted with care and good intentions, they require scrutiny. Otherwise art and antiquity are at risk.
The Burrell Collection is named after Sir William Burrell, a shipping magnate who became an art collector after making a fortune.
He spent the later part of his life acquiring magnificent art and artefacts which, in 1944, he generously donated to the City of Glasgow, together with £250,000 to help house it. It was a tremendous gift to the people.
As is often the case with such acts of philanthropy, Burrell made two important conditions to his bequest. One: the collection had to be displayed in a rural setting. Two: Burrell laid down restrictions on lending abroad. As a shipping magnate he knew that any sea transportation of his collection would expose it to risk, so he stipulated that it could not be loaned overseas. It is the restriction on loans that is under challenge.
A bill to permit the Burrell Collection travel around the world has been introduced to parliament. If passed, it will provide Glasgow City Council with the power to lend items abroad.
The initial plans are for a major tour stopping off in France, Japan, China, Russia and Qatar. The council says that this “would be used to reaffirm the collection’s status as one of the most important in the world”. Additionally, they argue, all international loans are now transported by air, which isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as shipping.
It is increasingly common to loan art and artefacts to galleries on the other side of the world. But before we commit to flying these priceless treasures all over the planet, we need to reflect on the consequences of such actions. Loans are not always a good idea.
One of my pet hates is visiting a gallery which holds a renowned art work and finding that the work is not on display because it has been lent to some faraway exhibition. It is an all too frequent experience because there is currently a voracious appetite for international travelling shows. As one blockbuster opens, another is in preparation, whilst another closes, in most cities. There are undeniable advantages – certain works are brought together which assists our appreciation of them, such as the unprecedented exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” held in 2012 at the National Gallery in London – there are also major disadvantages.
Too many are assembled for exhibitions sake, rather than for the art work; for creating the impression of an event and media headlines, instead of scholarship or appreciation. It is a juggernaut infecting the art world with what the art critic, Blake Gopnik, has called “exhibitionitis”. And it impacts negatively on the attention we pay to the permanent collection. No art collection on its own is worth a look, it seems. It is only worth a visit if the paintings and sculptures are from somewhere else. “What’s coming next?” is the question everyone asks, not: “What is in the collection?”
Whilst it is fashionable to send art and artefacts all around the world, the constant travel puts unique and fragile work at great risk. People may be confident that flying is preferable to shipping, and claim that there are improvements in packing and packaging, but it is never 100 per cent safe. It is all too easy to damage something that is irreplaceable. In 2008, at the National Gallery in London, at the “Renaissance Siena” show, a panel painting was dropped and broken as the exhibition was dismantled. There is an inevitable strain planed onto vulnerable paintings and antiquity as they are taken down from the walls, wrapped up, and carted elsewhere, which does not apply if they stay put.
Is it necessary to put the works in danger? One reason for the travel plans, is it said, is that it would help with fundraising efforts towards the cost of a refurbishment. Although the current building housing the Burrell has won architectural awards, the council plans a multimillion-pound refit. The roof needs to be fixed and they want more display space. I appreciate that the gallery space could be improved, and this one opened some time ago, in 1983. Certainly, repairs to the roof appear urgent. But care is also required in this matter. Over the last decade too much emphasis has been placed on new buildings and cafes instead of the art.
Further, in these difficult economic times, we need to encourage a new William Burrell, not act in such a way as to be a disincentive. Overturning the specific wishes of previous donors will not encourage new ones. William Burrell is long gone, but future donors will be put off when they see how their wishes can be disregarded and overturned.
There is a difference between being seen at the latest exhibition, and looking at a work of art.
In our age of distraction we should treasure a collection that deserves to stay home, not tout it all over the world.