Glasgow split over sharing its masterpieces with the world

Art/ Burrell Collection
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OF THE hundreds who wander among the Rodin sculptures, Ming vases and Rembrandt paintings at the Burrell Gallery in Glasgow's Pollok Park this weekend, few will ever have enjoyed so impressive a collection in such serene surroundings.

But behind the gracious facade of the city's premier cultural attraction a bitter battle is being fought between the collection's trustees and the city council. It centres on the council's attempt to overturn a condition of shipping magnate Sir William Burrell's 1944 bequest of his eclectic art collection to his native city which prevents the loan to foreign galleries of any of its 8,000 works.

Divisions between the trustees of the Burrell Collection and the city council are now so deep that Parliament is being asked to adjudicate. The council and Julian Spalding, the city's director of museums, are pressing for private legislation to allow Burrell items to travel abroad. Six parliamentary commissioners - a mix of MPs and peers - are expected to take evidence from both sides at a public hearing in Glasgow this summer.

Requests for borrowing items come from all over the world to the Burrell, which boasts a collection of Gothic art second only to New York's Metropolitan Museum's, and incomparable works by Degas.

Mr Spalding says overseas lending will raise the international profile of the collection and the city. His critics whisper that Mr Spalding, a front-runner for the directorship of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is motivated by a desire to raise his own profile.

The trustees insist that the original terms of the shipping magnate's bequest should be honoured. Colin Donald, former lawyer to Sir William's nephews and one of the Burrell's five trustees, politely describes the council's move as "an unusual procedure for changing a will", and plays down the growing animosity between the two camps.

But he admits the row has been rumbling for some time. "Both sides would have liked to resolve this privately," he says. "No one likes to battle in public." But compromise, he argues, would be impossible. "You either lend abroad or you do not."

Mr Donald never met Sir William who died in his nineties in 1958 and began his passionate collecting at the turn of the century. The multi- millionaire shunned publicity and is popularly remembered as dour and miserly.

He has no close living relatives, but Mr Donald claims the trustees - who include John Logan, Sir William's former lawyer - reflect the views of distant Burrell relatives and that they remain true to the path Sir William himself wanted to follow.

Until a gallery was purpose-built for the collection, it languished below stairs in secret locations around Glasgow. Another bequest condition that the "works of man" be seen amid the "works of nature" sparked a 39- year search for the right gallery location before it was housed in Pollok Park.

Sir William always wanted the collection kept and shown together, said Mr Donald. The senior trustee points to the "explosion" when Sir William discovered the city had loaned a few works to Switzerland in 1953. "Sir William was meticulous," said Mr Donald. "He was very clear about what he wanted. You cannot play hard and fast with the original rules." He warns there is a wider issue; the discouraging effect an overturning might have on future bequests.

But Mr Spalding insists a change to the bequest if crucial if the Burrell is to take its rightful place in the world. "I can put a Burrell item on a plane in Glasgow and fly to London but I cannot fly it to France or the New York because that would mean travelling over water.

"We borrow from the great museums of the world and they want something back," he argues. "That is fair enough. Burrell is one of the great world collections but it will disappear from public view unless it takes part in overseas exhibitions. Its profile will simply sink."

Mr Spalding argues that Sir William would no longer insist on a lending condition which took root in a time when works of art were transported by ships which had an horrendous safety record.

"Burrell was a ship owner who didn't trust ships," concludes Mr Spalding.