Glasgow’s Burrell Nearly 40 Years On Gets A New Look – Clare Henry




Back in 1983, on the day the Queen opened the famous Burrell, I reported enthusiastically for the BBC on its unique qualities. It was a memorable moment for a magical creation and put Glasgow on the map. It began Glasgow’s regeneration, its move from a perceived slum city to cultural hotspot. Almost 40 years on, I was there again when after 6 years and £68 million, the new look Burrell was revealed. I was not quite so impressed.

The Burrell had been closed for restoration, not reinvention, for repairs, not re-vamp, for renovation – not to be ‘re-imagined

Yes, the leaks were fixed, the roof redone and happily, the memorable ‘woodland walk’ with its glass walls looking onto Pollok Park trees survived, but a vast empty stepped hole had been dug in the middle of the building murdering the original flow. I hated this and said so.

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This new’ core access’ so-called ‘Hub’, is a radical, unnecessary architectural intervention in the heart of the building which swallows space and delves deep into the basement – where there is, of course, one of 3 cafes. Three Hutton Castle rooms, specified in Burrell’s bequest, are reduced to one, making way for entrance and shop, while some archways are moved, with one left standing sentinel alone, making no sense at all. The remaining Burrell room is a travesty and comes complete with videos of Lady Burrell and her butler – plus white plastic furniture.

We are told gallery space is increased by 35%, hopefully allowing more of this unique collection to be seen, but with such a large area taken up by the infamous Hub, one wonders.

I also hated the new dull ‘secondary school’ entrance, which has sadly displaced much unique ancient stained glass. The beloved original entrance with its fabulous huge medieval door was deemed too ‘ecclesiastic and off-putting.’

Six weeks later, I was privileged to get an almost private tour the day before the public opening while a few photographers snapped away in glorious sunshine under a blue sky. I had gone back in trepidation, fingers crossed, hoping that once BURRELL’s superb art collection was installed, all would be well. Not so.

Yes, the world-class Chinese ceramics, bronzes and jade, the famous tapestries and Persian carpets, gorgeous French impressionist paintings and medieval treasures selected from over 9000 items gathered by the shipping magnate are as wonderful as ever, looking even more fantastic due to cleaning and conservation.

However, with video gimmicks at every corner, it is often difficult to focus on this superb and wide-ranging collection, truly “one of the greatest gifts ever made to any city in the world.” The new wonders of digital offerings include “19 large-scale video walls, 13 hybrid and 12 manual interactive, 8 digital 2m high screens with films

and 28 new documentary films.” Hugely distracting animated petal shapes dance across a wall of – guess what – exquisite paintings of flowers by Manet, Fantin Latour and Peploe. Ill-advised, to say the least.

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Clare Henry In Front Of The Burrell

The pictures, previously often upstairs, do have a better, bigger double-height space. They are arranged by theme – children, flowers, people reading, the colour blue. However, the installation is poor, with some huddled together and some – not just for kids – hung too low. In the drive for ‘accessibility’, serious mistakes have been made, diminishing priceless, gorgeous, powerful pictures by Bellini, Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Degas, Chardin, Courbet, Daumier and, of course, the Glasgow Boys. With works of this calibre, just let them speak for themselves.

So you can press buttons, turn handles, move levers, and watch really bad costume dress-up films. Yet giving video excitement to works of international renown is not only unnecessary but misplaced. As a friend commented caustically, “I see there’s a new children’s museum in Glasgow.”

Four-year-olds can pull funny faces in mirrors. Ten-year-olds will love seeing if they can match, mix and match. But due to atrocious labelling, their parents will not learn much, indeed may well be misled as a lot of labels don’t relate to nearby pictures or objects. I hasten to say that this fancy display is NOT done by the curators but by an external firm. And Glasgow already has a kid-friendly museum in Kelvingrove. It does not need another.

The place where video may be appropriate is in the second floor new Makers Gallery, explaining how things are made, i.e. glassblowing for stained glass, etchings, carving, tapestry etc. – useful for school groups and indeed educational throughout.

Like everyone else, I am overjoyed to see Glasgow’s BURRELL reopen after so long. The exterior looks stunning, the same but shiny. With new glazing and cladding, its power heating and lighting systems are replaced by more efficient, sustainable, and environmentally friendly technologies. The restoration also embraced technical advances simply not at the disposal of the original designers back in the 1970s. Now UV fenestration lowers the carbon footprint and saves tons of CO2 a year. Notably, the Burrell is the youngest building ever to be A listed.

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Maybe it’s a miracle it’s opened despite Brexit and Covid. New display cases came from Belgian, their installation team too. Customs delays and self-isolation compounded difficulties. Contractors and specialists are to be congratulated.

But how did the original BURRELL get its poetic personality and magical atmosphere? The main co-author was a 27-year-old woman, Brit Andresen, working in Cambridge with Gasson Meunier Architects. She has a distinguished, award-winning career, yet her key role in designing the Burrell is unknown, even by current staff. Yet her touch is everywhere in its subtle arrangement of space and light.

I first visited the BURRELL office in the 1970s. Its first curator, William Wells, resided in a cramped room where vintage filing cabinets revealed faded documents at the cost of breathtaking Degas pictures. None were insured!

50 years on, I still love the Burrell. It has a place deep in my heart. I am sure that new visitors will take it to their hearts just as we did. It is special. Unique. Memorable. A veritable treasure. Make sure you go. Overlook all the snags and unnecessary gimmicks. Just enjoy the amazing art set in a beautiful building deep in a perfect park.

Words/Photos Clare Henry © Artlyst 2022

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