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Charles Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Photo courtesy of
The Mackintosh Society

Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Burrell Collection:
Cultural Legacy or Tourist Package for Glasgow?


 

 

                                                         

By Patricia Boccadoro

GLASGOW, 23 February 2005"Glasgow is one of the liveliest and most cosmopolitan destinations in Europe. The city has been reborn as a centre of style and vitality set against a backdrop of outstanding Victorian architecture", boasts the tourist guide. Well, the grubby slum city of the sixties may have been revitalised, but Glasgow, situated on the river Clyde some forty miles west of Edinburgh the pretty Scottish capital, still remains a large, dark, industrial city whose wealth originated from coal-mining, chemicals and ship-building; from the blood and sweat of the workers. Culturally, things might be happening but, visually, let the visitor who braves the inclement weather head for Loch Lomond and the spectacular highlands beyond.

Should you be passing through, however, the city does possess several museums worthy of interest as well as being the birthplace of the architect, decorative artist and furniture designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Curiously, on the centenary of Mackintosh's birth, in 1968 as a follow-up to the big Paris show seven years before, exhibitions of his work were held in Vienna, Zurich, London, and Edinburgh but not in his hometown where he has had to wait to be appreciated. And although his finest work dates to about a dozen years around 1900, it was viewed at the time as trivial or out-dated in Glasgow, a revolving bookcase he designed*, for example, being mistaken for the aerial of a radio when put on auction.

His work caused more fuss than anything else there, and by the 1970's, little was left of the master of Art Nouveau. The tea-rooms he designed for a Miss Cranston, complete with chairs, tables and hat-stands had been neglected or pulled down, Queen's Cross Church in Garscube Road deserted by its congregation, and his last home, 6, Florentine Terrace had been demolished.

Glasgow School of Art
Glasgow School of Art
Photo: Eric Thorburn

Only the buildings he designed, including the water-tower at the back of The Glasgow Herald, the Martyr's Public School at 11, Parson's Street, which can only be visited by appointment, and his masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, again not easily accessible to the general public, all of which were more original and complex than anything else in Britain at the time, stood witness to his gifts. It was not until a decade ago that Queen's Cross Church found a new life as the headquarters of The Mackintosh Society, while Florentine Terrace was resurrected under the name of "The Mackintosh House".

The Mackintosh House
Dining Room of The Mackintosh House


The person to thank for this revival of interest was the wealthy shipping magnate, William Burrell, who left his entire collection of impressionist paintings, medieval art and oriental ceramics to the city upon his death. For the Greater Glasgow and Clyde Valley tourist board, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Burrell Collection became the perfect package tour.

Although Burrell died in 1958, The Burrell Collection** did not open until some twenty-five years later, when Glasgow was in the depths of serious post-industrial decline. Afraid, and not unreasonably, of the damaging effects of the high levels of pollution in the city, the magnate had specified that his collection be housed some sixteen miles away, and the finding of such a site had proved difficult.

"The Burrell Collection of over 8, 000 works of art, which marks the beginning of Glasgow's cultural revolution, was finally opened in 1983", Muriel King, the curator of the museum told me. "It was built on land from the Pollok estate, and although it was designed in the 1970's, the building still feels very modern and has scarcely aged at all. The country setting also shows the works of art off to their best possible advantage", she added.

"William Burrell seemed to think that a museum should contain a very wide range of things, so although people come initially to see our small collection of Degas paintings and our one Rembrandt, they are always very surprised to see the rest of the exhibits, and particularly the collection of Chinese bronzes. There are 184 of them, from water vessels to musical instruments, making it the most important collection of Chinese bronzes outside China. We have a special exhibition on at the moment, One million days in China, which celebrates 4,000 years of Chinese history and culture, and there we are showing a near life-size Buddhist figure as well as a large selection of stunning earthenware .

Seated Buddhist Luohan
Liu Zhen: Seated Buddhist Luohan, 1484
Ming dynasty
Stoneware decorated with enamels
127.0 x 60.9 x 39.3 cm
Purchased by Sir William Burrell 17 April 1944 for 350
Photo courtesy of The Burrell Collection

"The richness of the glazes is astonishing", Muriel King informed me. "The greens seem almost modern although they are twelfth century, and the yellow could be in shop-windows today, proof that people at the time were surely more technically advanced than we've given them credit for.

"Everything here was bought at auctions", she said. "Burrell was shrewd; a canny dealer with the market, he never paid silly prices. Moreover, he kept the catalogues of every Chinese art auction that he attended and seemed, so people say, a most enthusiastic collector. From 1911 he kept meticulous notes of where he got things from in old school exercise books which is how we know he didn't pay over the odds. Of course, he was greatly helped by his dealers, but his own judgement was said to be excellent."

The curator also pointed out the important collection of Islamic carpets and tiles as well as the medieval tapestries, kept in a darkened room, and the stained glass while other exhibits of interest included a pair of women's shoes from 1700, an embroidered woman's jacket from 1600, and even a pair of gloves, made of silver lace, pearls and spangles from the same year. There was also a unique hawking set in silver which probably belonged to James I of England and Scotland.

The museum, like most of the others in the city is free, enabling many of Glasgow's poorer, socially deprived families to benefit from a cultural day out.

Glasgow is also, together with Manchester, a very great Victorian city. In the 19th century it was almost completely built in massive dark-red stone, and labelled Gothic, or Queen Anne. Recently, there has been massive investment in restoring and cleaning the imposing buildings and, I was told, it is not infrequent to see people strolling round, their heads upturned to better appreciate the skyline. It is perhaps fortunate that they do for Glasgow must hold the record for the amount of spat-out chewing gum per square metre of any city I have ever visited. Covering each street, pavement and city square. More second-hand gum than asphalt, glistening an icy, dirty grey. For all its vaunted transformation, the sprawling cheerless city of the sixties and its menace lies not too far beneath the surface.


* Now in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art


* *The Burrell Collection has recently been ordered by the Government to return a painting stolen by the Nazis in 1936 to its rightful owners. However, the gallery argues that they are not able to do so under the terms of Burrell's will, which prohibits any work of art being disposed of in any way. The case continues as the museum consults lawyers over the ownership of Still Life, attributed to a pupil of the French painter, Chardin, and currently worth 7,500.


The Burrell Collection
Pollok Country Park
2060 Pollokshaws Road
Glasgow
Tel: (44) 0141 287 25 97


Patricia Boccadoro writes on visual arts and dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and is a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.

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