In 1949 Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) donated part of his extensive collection of paintings and artefacts to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Sir William, who from 1927, lived just outside of Berwick at Hutton Castle, donated some 300 items, including paintings, porcelain and antiquities to Berwick in order to form a small art gallery in the town.
Burrell began collecting in the 1870s, when he was still in his teens. He did not stop until shortly before his death, at Hutton Castle, in 1958. Over a period of eighty years he bought and sold thousands of works of art and established a huge collection of paintings, tapestries, sculpture, ceramics, stained glass, furniture, silver and metalwork. Burrell’s legacy contains works of art spanning three continents and four thousand years of human endeavour. Unlike many other wealthy collectors, Burrell personally selected and purchased the items in his collection. He bought paintings and objects because he liked them, but only if the price was right.
Burrell’s wealth came from the success, and eventual sale, of the family shipping company in Glasgow that he had joined in 1876 at the age of fourteen. His father died in 1885, leaving 24 year-old Burrell and his eldest brother George to take over the running of the firm. The two brothers proved to be extremely adept businessmen, and the assets of the company steadily increased. By 1916 the company’s entire fleet had been sold and Burrell was able to devote himself to the management of his already substantial art collection. Buying and selling works of art became a passion, and the collection grew rapidly.
Following his move to Hutton Castle in 1927, Sir William became an active member of the local art scene. He was by then a recognised national authority on art, and had spent the previous ten years remodelling the castle to house his growing collection of paintings, sculpture, tapestries and ceramics. By 1940 Sir William had begun donating items to the museum at Berwick. The works included striking Chinese ceramics, and some fine metalwork and sculpture. By 1947 Sir William was taking a leading role in setting up a public art gallery in the town.
Berwick’s Burrell Collection is small in comparison to its more famous cousin in Glasgow, but it is not insignificant. At the opening of the Art Gallery, Sir William stated that it had given his wife and himself the greatest of pleasure to bring the pictures together and give them to the ancient and royal town of Berwick. The pictures they selected included the oil painting “Cap Gris Nez” by Daubigny; regarded as the best example of the artist’s work that Sir William owned, and a pastel sketch, Danseuses Russes, by Degas. Sir William came under pressure from Tom Honeyman, Director of Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries at the time, who wanted to keep both of these paintings in the main collection. Fortunately for Berwick, once Sir William had set his mind on something he was rarely dissuaded. A further three pictures were donated to Berwick in 1951, to fill the remaining wall space and complete the Gallery. The forty-five pictures cover a similar range of artists and styles to the larger set in Glasgow, and also reflect Sir William’s particular fondness for the work of Joseph Crawhall.
When sixteen year old William Burrell bought his first painting at an auction attended during his lunch-break, it was the start of a passion that would last his entire life.