The Burrell Collection: Highlights from a world-class stained glass collection
The closure, to allow for a major refurbishment, of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow until 2020 was first reported in Vidimus towards the end of last year. One of this month’s news stories raises the question of how the Burrell’s extensive and internationally-significant stained glass collection might be housed within the redeveloped museum. Here, the nature and extent of Burrell’s stained glass and its place within the larger collection are outlined. Some of the highlights from the stained glass brought together by Burrell are also illustrated and described.
The product of eighty years of collecting activity that continued until the year before his death in 1958, the collection Sir William Burrell (fig. 1) gave to the City of Glasgow is astonishing in its artistic breadth and chronological diversity. Regarded as the greatest ever amassed by a single individual, it encompasses paintings, sculpture, tapestries, ceramics, stained glass, furniture, silver, metalwork and objets d’art of all kinds, spanning three continents and almost every period. Burrell evidently held, however, a particular affection for European art of the Middle Ages. His treasures included a twelfth-century bronze reliquary, depicting three sleeping knights, known as the Temple Pyx for its reputed connection with the Temple Church in London; an early thirteenth-century enamelled casket, depicting the martyrdom of Thomas Becket; an exceptionally fine boxwood sculpture of the Virgin and Child, from fourteenth-century France; and more than 150 fifteenth- and sixteenth-century tapestries. Arguably most spectacular, though was his collection of stained glass, described as, ‘probably the best and most comprehensive to be found anywhere outside a major cathedral’ .
As records of his loans to the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901, together with contemporary photographs of his house, demonstrate, Burrell owned historic stained glass from early in his collecting career. He developed trusting relationships with Grosvenor Thomas and then Wilfred Drake, as advisor and agent for his stained glass purchases, and made a number of remarkable acquisitions, particularly in the years following World War II, that raised his collection to the first rank. These included the spectacular series of early sixteenth-century heraldic panels from Fawsley in Northamptonshire, and purchases from William Randolph Hearst’s extensive medieval collection. By his death, Burrell’s stained glass collection included more than 700 panels.
In its diversity and range, Burrell’s glass illustrates many of the changes in painting style and techniques, donors and patrons, and iconographic fashions that characterise the development of stained glass across the Middle Ages. The collection houses, on the one hand, a panel depicting the prophet Jermiah (fig. 2) from the Infancy of Christ window belonging to the mid-twelfth century glazing of the abbey of St Denis, just outside Paris. Although fragments of figural stained glass survive from earlier periods, it is only with the twelfth century that schemes begin to survive in any real quantity, and among the most significant of these is inarguably that commissioned by Abbot Suger for his redesigned abbey church that marked the beginning of the Gothic style. A late-thirteenth century panel depicting the Marriage at Cana (fig. 3), acquired in the sale of Hearst’s treasures, shared these great church origins, attributed to the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand, where, in 1262, Louis IX came to marry his son, the future Philip III, to Isabella of Aragon, partly financing stained glass windows that appear to have affinities with those in the Sainte-Chapelle.
On the other hand, there are in Burrell’s collection a number of examples of small-scale roundels and quarries, painted in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Whilst an early sixteenth-century Flemish roundel beautifully depicting the Annunciation (fig. 4) retains the devotional iconography that dominated earlier medieval glazing, many of Burrell’s examples of this form of glazing reflect the fashion for the secular, the comical and the every day, commissioned for domestic settings, accessible to patrons of far less elevated a standing than Abbot Suger. One of the best-known of Burrell’s roundels is that representing the month of February (fig. 5) from a series of Labours of the months, almost certainly from a set formerly in the old parsonage of St Michael-at-Coslany in Norwich (three others from the same series are in the Victoria & Albert Museum). The collection houses, as well, numerous quarries painted with birds, beasts, scenes from everyday life (fig. 6) and even an episode from the popular tales of wily Reynard the Fox.
Ultimately, Burrell’s collection developed two notable strengths. One was in northern European glass of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It was after 1918 that Burrell began collecting stained glass in earnest, and among his early purchases were two early-sixteenth century windows from churches in Rouen, one a two-light Tree of Jesse (fig. 7), the other, three lights from a window narrating the Life of St John the Evangelist (fig. 8) (the other five lights from the same window are now in Wells Cathedral). These spectacular windows set the standard for his late medieval European interests, and were followed with such acquisitions as a collection of mid-fifteenth century windows from the Carmelite church Boppard-am-Rhein just south of Cologne. Among the largest in the collection, the Boppard windows include a narrative of the Life of Christ and the Virgin (fig. 9), complete with an image of its donors, Seigfried von Gelnhausen and his wife (fig. 10); two large standing figures representing St Cunibert and an unidentified bishop saint; and panels showing the Ninth Commandment and the Glorification of the Virgin. It has been said that, ‘the importance of the Boppard windows cannot be overemphasized, not only because of their sheer scale and beauty, but also because of their survival as an important iconographical scheme based on the cult of the Virgin Mary’: a frequent target of Protestant iconoclasm.
On a very different scale, but equally significant, is the small panel depicting Princess Cecily (fig. 11), a daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Painted around 1485 Cecily originally occupied a spot alongside her parents, two brothers and four sisters kneeling at the foot of the so-called ‘Royal’ window in the north-west transept of Canterbury Cathedral. The panel is not only almost certainly a commission with royal connections, but is also a fine and early example of the influence of foreign, particularly Flemish, stained glass artists, who would come to gain a virtual monopoly of all major commissions in England by the time of Henry VIII’s reign. Elsewhere, Burrell’s collection illustrates the complex and sophisticated relationships glaziers of this period developed with other artistic branches. A late fifteenth century German panel representing Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba (fig. 12), for example, illustrates how glass-painters of the period began to copy and adapt to stained glass designs made by contemporary engravers.
Burrell’s stained glass collection is equally noteworthy for its heraldic glazing, in terms of both quantity and quality, with English armorial glass particularly well-represented. The earliest heraldic glass dates from the fourteenth century, and includes such splendid examples as the arms of the Somery family (fig. 13), barons of Dudley between 1194 and 1322. On more than one occasion, Burrell expressed his liking for English armorial glass of the sixteenth century , and it is not surprising, therefore, that his collection includes some excellent examples of glass of this type. Most significantly, in the summer of 1947 he purchased 38 heraldic panels from Vale Royal Abbey in Cheshire, depicting the coats of arms of Cheshire landed gentry, and various royal shelds and badges. Paying just £55 for the series, Burrell was delighted with his purchase, noting later in a letter to William Drake, ‘I realise more than ever what a wonderful lot we got, what a bargain’ . In 1950, Burrell finally acquired a series of 39 excellent panels, on which he had had his eye since 1939, from the Great Oriel window at Fawsley Hall, just south of Daventry, illustrating the marriages, alliances and links with royalty of the Knightley family. Also represented in Burrell’s collecting were badges and mottos, a popular type of heraldry taking the form of a play on words or visual pun (known as a rebus). Among the best, and best-known, examples in the collection is the quarry showing a boy about to fall from a tree, with a finely-drawn eye and the word SLIP below (fig. 14). The device of John Islip, Abbot of Westminster (d.1532), it comes from his chantry chapel at Westminster Abbey.
Some of these panels, and others, were daily companions to Burrell from the late 1920s onwards, installed in the windows of Hutton Castle, his home near Berwick-upon-Tweed. It was on a staircase leading to his own bedroom that Burrell installed one of his favourite panels, showing Beatrix von Valkenburg, third wife of Richard, Earl of Cornwall (fig. 15). Dating to c.1270-80, the panel is now the earliest known surviving donor figure in English glass. But to Sir William, it was her connection to Hutton Castle that was most pleasing: Beatrix’s stepson, Richard Plantagentet, cousin to Edward I, had himself slept at Hutton the night before he fought and was killed at the siege of Berwick in 1296.
Indeed, it was Burrell’s express wish on gifting his collection to Glasgow in 1944 that the three most important rooms for the display of his stained glass collection – the Dining Room, Drawing Room and Hall – should be reproduced in the new museum building. Further glass was effectively displayed along the south side of the building and into the restaurant, allowing modern visitors the intimate access to stained glass so enjoyed by Burrell. It is hoped that the refurbished and remodelled museum will continue to showcase an aspect of the Burrell collection that was evidently particularly close to its originator’s heart.
Dr Heather Gilderdale Scott
1.J. J. Norwich’s Introduction to The Burrell Collection, R. Marks et al (Glasgow, 1983), p. 8.
2.L. Cannon, Stained Glass in the Burrell Collection (Edinburgh, 1991), p. 20.
3.ibid., pp. 26-7.
4.ibid., p. 23.