Chinese history

Glasgow's Burrell Collection of China

Chinese history

William Burrell was born in Glasgow in 1861. After his father's death the family's modest shipping line was taken from strength to strength by William and his brother George (who was a very able marine technologist). Their success was such that by the end of the century, still in his thirties, William Burrell was able to retire. His home was furnished with a superb collection of textiles, glass, ceramics, furniture and paintings, which were donated to the City of Glasgow.

The Collection is remarkable for its diversity and the corresponding range of its masterpieces. It includes mediaeval tapestries and stained glass rivalled in this country only by the Victoria and Albert Museum, good examples of Egyptian, Mesopotamian and classical antiquities, paintings by Degas, Manet and Rembrandt, as well as the fine collection of oriental art. Burrell bought what pleased his eye. Having left school at 14, he was no academic and indeed maintained a lifelong suspicion of that breed, saying he would always trust a dealer's opinion first because the dealer must put his money where his mouth is. Thus historical runs rarely exist within the Collection, but the most nearly complete is undoubtedly the collection of Chinese ceramics.

Neolithic Urn

The Neolithic urn illustrated here is made of painted earthenware and dates to the third millennium BC. It comes from the Yangshao culture which occupied north west China until the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC and was made by the coiling method (using a long 'sausage' of clay which is then coiled into the desired shape). Burrell acquired forty urns of this type. With the advent of the Bronze Age ceramics went out of production almost completely, save for some very heavily pitted white earthenware which imitated the bronzes in both their forms and their deeply incised decoration. Extant pieces of this type are not common, and Burrell acquired only two rather indifferent Zhou pieces to represent the period.

There are more than 8,000 objects in the Collection and almost a quarter of them are Chinese. Burrell's ships traded in the Far East but he himself never travelled to the area and virtually all his Chinese art was acquired in Britain. He probably became interested in Chinese ceramics through familiarity with the excellent collections formed by two fellow Scots in the shipping world and by way of the general fashion for Qing porcelain that prevailed at the turn of the century. He bought nearly 1,500 examples from his youth until shortly before his death at the age of 96. They range from Neolithic urns to highly decorative late Qing porcelains, and most types from the intervening period are represented.

The Han Dynasty saw a shift from the styles of the Bronze Age to a renewed concentration on ceramics, which now often took the form of funerary wares reflecting domestic life. The Collection has a fine group of these, mostly decorated with a green lead glaze and including models of a granary, a wellhead, a cooking stove and several guardian dogs. Animals remained popular as funerary wares in the Tang Dynasty but this time in a slightly different capacity. The magnificent sancai horses and camels produced mainly in the first half of the 3rd century were clear reflections of the tomb occupant's wealth, most probably gained from trade on the Silk Route. The Bactrian camel in the Burrell Collection stands nearly three feet high, and as if its form were not sufficient indication of exotic foreign connections, the saddlebags are even decorated with the bulbous face of a Westerner. The striking lead glazes in green, amber and cream were also used on jars, plates, bowls and the other vessels which were to become the vehicles for technical advances in the Song when the use of funerary wares declined.

Classic Song wares are well-represented in the Burrell Collection; there are white ding wares with either incised or moulded decoration, jun wares of lavender blue, sometimes with splashes of purple, and the whole range of green celadon wares. The Ming inherited from the period of Mongol rule the most famous decorative technique in Chinese ceramic history, that of painting under the glaze in either copper red or, more usually, cobalt blue. Copper red was much harder to control than the blue and good examples are rare; nevertheless there are two fine pieces, a bowl and a ewer, in the Burrell Collection. The blue and white tankard illustrated here shows clearly the influence of Near Eastern shapes on Chinese porcelain, and the geometric design on the lid is purely Islamic.

Ming Tankard
Ming dynasty tankard, early 15th century
7 inches high.

Like most collectors of his time, Burrell purchased Kangxi (1662-1722) porcelain in enormous quantities. Much of it is blue and white but still more numerous are the highly decorative famille verte wares with their detailed over-glaze enamel painting. Nor did he neglect the simpler styles, for there are many monochromes in yellow, turquoise or ox-blood as well as blanc-de-chine white porcelains. These later monochromes are amongst a wide range of ceramic glazes which a number of Chinese institutions have recently been researching in great detail and reproducing with some success; the reproductions of celadons, temmoku, ding and other pre-Ming ceramic types are the best of current Chinese ceramics. The quality of these pieces which revive past tradition easily surpasses that of the pieces which may be said to represent contemporary aesthetic values, though the good raw materials available in China mean that these in their turn generally produce finer porcelain than is customary elsewhere.

Jade carving is another Neolithic skill which still prevails in China. It began with simple straight lines carved on ritual blades for Neolithic graves and developed into a sought after medium for both burial goods and personal ornaments. As a material jade has always been highly prized by the Chinese people. Touching it is considered as important as looking at it, and with this in mind many pieces have been carved to fit comfortably into the hand as well as to highlight the quality of the stone. An example in the Burrell Collection is a small 18th century carving of two melons with vines, leaves and bats around them . Despite the beauty and variety of jades they seem not to have been of particular interest to Sir William Burrell; the Collection includes examples from the Neolithic to the 19th century yet all 150 pieces were purchased within the space of three years in the late 1940's.

The same cannot be said of bronzes. William Burrell collected them consistently and once wrote to a friend that he always considered the bronzes of China to be far more advanced than the ceramics. He bought nearly two hundred of them and again most types are represented in the Collection. The Shang and Zhou bronzes were mainly wine or food vessels made for ritual use. These and other bronze types such as chariot fittings and weaponry are all included in the Collection.

Such thoroughness is remarkable in a collector who never travelled to the Far East and whose interests were far from limited to that area. Sir William Burrell always maintained that the collection, not the collector, was the important thing, yet an eye for quality and the vision to collect in unusual areas provide a hallmark for his Chinese collection no less than for the whole.

For more on the Burrell Collection please visit the official Burrell Collection web site .

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 : China Now 121, Page 35

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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