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From Collector To Connoisseur: Sir William Burrell and Chinese Art, 1911-57

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What provoked Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) into collecting Chinese art - and by Chinese art I mean the broad range of objects from ceramics to bronzes of a period ranging from the Neolithic (2-3,000 BC), to the 18th century? Why should a shy, retiring, conservative businessman with no formal tertiary education and whose taste was formed during the late Victorian-early Edwardian period collect in a field that at the time - the first four decades of this century - was considered advanced taste? What were his influences and what informed his collecting of Chinese art? These were just some of the questions that the present Provenance project sought to answer. Inevitably, some of the answers have remained elusive. Others have been if not wholly answered then partially so through the compilation and analysis of Burrell’s collecting sources, his associates and his own comments found in his often-detailed Purchase Books. Chinese art was a significant area of collecting for Burrell, not just a passing interest. It is hoped that his almost half-a-decade of documented collecting of Chinese objects will shed some light on other collectors, dealers, agents and indeed the market as a whole during perhaps the most significant period in the history of collecting Chinese art in the West.

Although we have no Purchase Books recording his collecting activities prior to 29th May 1911, we do have a record from another source of Chinese purchases he made the previous year. Chinese art dealer John Sparks records Burrell purchasing goods to the value of £65 on 22nd July 1910.1 While there are no details relating to what he bought on this occasion, it was probably Chinese ceramics and most likely blue and white, famille verte or famille noire porcelains of the Kangxi period (1662-1722) which were the prevailing fashion in Europe and America during the late 19th-early 20th centuries. They were part of the revival of interest in 18th porcelains originally imported into Europe in the 17th and early 18th centuries, which began in the 1860s and which was most probably stimulated by the opening up of Japan to international trade between 1854 and 1858. Collectors such as George Salting, Richard Bennett and James Orrock in Britain amassed large collections of predominantly Kangxi porcelains before the turn of the 20th century and set the trend which spread to North America with collectors like William Thompson Walters and James A. Garland. Most collectors of the next generation, which included William Hesketh Lever, Burrell himself and his friend Leonard Gow, collected in the same manner. Few ventured far beyond this discrete area. As early as 1911, however, Burrell began to extend his range. He continued to buy Kangxi wares – which he did throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s, buying up pieces previously in the Garland, Bennett and Gow collections – but increasingly ventured into collecting a wider range of materials and from earlier periods. These latter objects included those that had been emerging from China only slowly before 1911, but which came out in large quantities during the 1920s and 1930s.

By extending his range, Burrell joined a small group of contemporaries and major museum institutions, who were collecting Chinese material that was totally new to a Western audience. In Britain, collectors such as George Eumorfopoulos, Sir Percival David, Oscar Raphael, C.G. Seligman, Henry Oppenheim and Frederick Schiller, all specialised in collecting early ceramics, bronzes and jades, sculpture and other objects and were responsible, along with a few talented curators such as R.L. Hobson at the British Museum and Bernard Rackham at the Victoria & Albert Museum, for pushing forward research and creating interest outside China in these new categories of object. Bronze-Age artifacts, Han and Tang burial figures, as well as works of art from the Song and Ming dynasties, were being seen for the first time in Britain, a situation that was replicated in the rest of Europe and North America.

Although not in the front line of collectors and not an associate of any of those mentioned above, Burrell nevertheless began to acquire early ceramics, jades and bronzes after 1911. There are few clues as to what or who might have stimulated his interest. Burrell himself is very reticent. There are only his Purchase Books, which tell us about what he was collecting and when. But it is at least possible to discern a pattern in his collecting which also sheds light on the market at the time and the sources from which he was making his purchases. Through this project we have been fortunate in being able to trace most of Burrell’s acquisitions through dealers’ records and auction catalogues back through previous collectors and in some cases to China itself.

One thing is very clear, Burrell never travelled to China, in spite of the fact that the ships of Burrell and Son regularly traded in the Far East. Instead he relied on a number of dealers, a few of whom became close and trusted advisors and who acted for him at auction. Regular dealers were W.T. Dickinson & Son, S.M. Franck & Co., H.R. Hancock, T.J. Larkin, Charles Nott Ltd, Spink & Son Ltd, Winifred Williams, but particularly Frank Partridge & Sons Ltd, Bluett & Sons and John Sparks Ltd, with whom he had a close and long-standing relationship. He also began to acquire books on Chinese art, some of which were newly published. His library, which is housed in the Burrell Collection, contains a number of core books of the period, such as Stephen Bushell’s Chinese Art (two volumes, 1904 & 1906), and R.L. Hobson’s Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, published in a limited edition in 1915, all copiously annotated in Burrell’s hand.

Some of the early entries in the Purchase Books are difficult to marry up with the remaining objects but, for the most part, it can be done. On the first page of the first purchase book of 1911, there are entries for the purchase of Chinese ceramics.2 Along with the usual Kangxi wares there are indications of a new taste. Two Song vases appear and three figures which are dated to the Han period. One of the Song vases was sold but the other, described as “Sung vase with lid, very large” might well be 38_225 or 38_226, a Qingbai burial urn, one of three examples in the Collection and similar to a piece in the V&A, acquired a year after Burrell in 1912. The three Han figures are probably from the group 38_152, 38_153, 38_154 and 38_155, datable with hindsight to the early Tang dynasty. On page two is a large group of Han, Tang, Song and Ming period ceramics and bronzes, bought from S.M. Franck & Co and recorded in Burrell’s Purchase Book on 2nd August 1911. Included in this group was a slip painted Cizhou vase, bought as Song but in fact Ming 15th century (38_400) and a fine Tang stoneware amphora with clear straw-coloured glaze (38_185). While some of the dates might be revised upwards (and occasionally downwards), these pieces are indicative of Burrell’s shift in taste.

It is interesting that Burrell should also be buying from S.M. Franck & Co., a well-established wholesale dealer, whose warehouse was at 25 Camomile Street in the City of London and who was importing objects directly from China and supplying institutions such as the V&A at this time.3 Franck seems to have gained a reputation for supplying newly discovered archaeological pieces at reasonable prices. Certainly by 1910, when Burrell seems first to have entered the market for such objects, there was steadily growing competition in this area internationally. The Director of the V&A in a minute dated 29th July 1910, wrote in connection with purchases of Tang, Song and Ming ceramics from Franck & Co:

This class of ware has hitherto been little known in Europe, only a few isolated examples having, until recently, found their way into museums. Public interest in them has been lately aroused by the Exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club and by that at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. The commencement of railway making in China has caused the opening up of the early graves and it is vessels found in these that have been coming into the market…It is understood that the German and Belgian Governments have recently taken special measures with a view to sending agents to China and Japan for the purpose of procuring specimens of this early porcelain. It is most important that the Museum, which is at present unrepresented in this style, should make a serious effort to collect specimens of the class named and the present opportunity is a good one for acquiring an admirable series at a very modest price.4

Burrell’s interest may have been aroused by the Burlington Fine Arts Club exhibition of Early Chinese Pottery and Porcelain of 1910, mentioned above and quite possibly by the articles that R.L. Hobson was publishing on early Chinese porcelain between 1909 and 1910.

From this time on, Burrell collected a steady stream of Han, Tang and Song ceramics (1st-13th century), which included a straw coloured glazed Tang Camel which was purchased in 1915 (38_120) and a large Southern celadon temple vase, 14th century Yuan period in date, purchased in 1914 (38_309).5 This interest in early wares continued to be paralleled by a number of books acquired by him on the subject. His copy of the Burlington Magazine Monograph on Chinese Art of 1925 has his usual copious notes, particularly in the sections on Burial and Song wares.

Burrell’s great period of acquisition in terms of the Chinese collections was in the 1930s and especially 1940s. The 1920s and 1930s were periods of intense competition between collectors and museum institutions worldwide for early Chinese works of art. Dealers such as John Sparks, S.M. Franck and Bluetts in London and C.T. Loo, Yamanaka and the Tonying Company internationally, all specialised in this area and either had offices or at least agents working in and around Beijing and Shanghai who were supplying them directly. Burrell was buying at the tail end of this boom when others who had amassed most of their collections a decade earlier were either consolidating, or selling them off. A great deal of George Eumorfopoulos’ collection for example was sold to the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum in 1934 with the remainder being sold after his death through Sotheby’s in 1940.6 Burrell bought eight former Eumorfopoulos pieces via dealers between 1942 and 1947, including a fine Ding ware dish (38_269).7 He also expanded into other media such as jades, sculpture and early bronzes. It is true that he had collected bronzes just after 1911, but these were largely Han period examples (2nd century BC - 2nd cent AD), and archaistic pieces of the Song and Ming periods - although Burrell often thought he was buying earlier pieces. This is evidence of his awareness of Bronze Age artifacts well in advance of most collectors and on a par with people like George Eumorfopoulos in Britain and Charles Lang Freer in the United States. Bronzes collected later, particularly during the middle-late 1940s were of the Shang and Zhou periods, including an important inscribed zun formerly in a Chinese collection and related by inscription to another bronze in the British Museum (8_18).8 There is evidence from the Purchase Books of his buying jades as early as 1918, but these are few and far between. One fine example bought that year from T.J. Larkin is a jade Champion vase (22_35).9 The bulk of the jades, however, were acquired in the 1940s.

There is no doubt that he benefited from the stagnation of the market during the Second World War and in the years immediately following when stocks were high but new material from China had all but dried up. In the closing and immediate post-war years of the War, his purchases of Chinese ceramics alone amounted to 42 in 1944; 146 in 1945; 154 in 1946; 122 in 1947 and 130 in 1948.10 Many of these pieces dated from the Han, Tang, Song and early Ming dynasties. The best pieces of blue and white and copper reds of the Yuan and Ming dynasties were practically all purchased between 1945 and 1947, from Frank Partridge - one of Burrell's favourite and trusted dealers - and included the well-known copper red ewer which Burrell bought for £85 in 1947 (38_455).11 It was at this time that Burrell purchased the majority of his Neolithic pieces, most of which came from sales of the N.S. Brown collection in 1942, 1944 and 1948.12 There are some 40 examples, mostly of the Yangshao and associated cultures and Burrell once boasted that his Collection would have "...the largest collection of these in Britain."13

Another event seems also to have influenced his buying activities: the decision to gift his collection to the City of Glasgow in 1944. Richard Marks has estimated that Burrell made a decision to gift his collection to the nation sometime soon after 1930.14 Burrell’s advancing age and an eye to posterity, may have been influential. However, the final decision was only made during the closing months of 1943 and specifically when Burrell informed the then Director of Glasgow Museums and Art Gallery, Tom Honeyman on a December evening that year, that Glasgow was going to be the recipient.15 Immediately Burrell seems to have shifted his pattern of collecting once again. This area of his collection, which until the 1940s consisted of relatively small-scale objects, started to include pieces that were larger and more significant in museum terms. He was not just concerned with quantity however. He seems to have been trying to round off the collection. The Neolithic wares provide a good example of this. The jades demonstrate this too, with Burrell favouring early jades, predominantly of the Neolithic to Ming periods, rather than the more elaborate Qing jades sought after by collectors at the end of the 19th century.

Larger pieces included the celebrated stoneware figure of a Luohan, bought through London dealer John Sparks on 31st December, 1943 for £350 (38_419).16 Research undertaken a number of years ago on the Luohan, which incidentally brought to light a number of associated figures with related inscriptions that dated them to 1484, revealed that they all came through Sparks sometime before 1937 and directly from China.17 However, further research undertaken as part of this Provenance Project has revealed that not all of them came through Sparks’ books as direct purchases by them. While three of the figures (the Guanyin later bought by the Second Lord Leverhulme, the Bodhidharma given to the V&A and the Budai figure given to the British Museum) were purchased for Sparks by one of their agents in China, T.T. Woo, Burrell’s Luohan seems to have come via the Paris and New York based Tonying Company (see entry in this database), the figure not having been entered in John Sparks’ books as a purchase.18 It is possible that Sparks owned a share in the Luohan as it appears in an advertisement for Sparks’ 1936 Autumn Exhibition and is shown in another photograph, this time of the Exhibition room itself, showing it and the Guanyin figure.19 Sparks’ Agents Book shows a remittance of £150 to Tonying in December 1943, following the sale of the Luohan figure to Burrell. Sparks therefore retained £200 profit either as their share or as commission.20

The volumes of photographic “References” held by Sparks indicate that there were more figures in the set, all dated to 1484, including a Luohan which is now in the Seattle Art Museum.21 John Sparks was therefore probably only one recipient of a large group of Luohan figures originating from a single site and all dating to 1484. As a major client of Sparks, Burrell had probably been aware of its existence and the decision to gift Glasgow the collection, which also seems to have happened in December 1943, probably confirmed the purchase of the Luohan. While not a suitable domestic object, it certainly fitted Burrell’s new wave of buying for a museum context. Burrell’s original gift of 6,000 pieces to the City in 1944, was followed by a further 2,000 acquisitions, many of which were Chinese.

One of the finest Han burial pieces again bought from John Sparks was a model of a storehouse, acquired in 1945 (38_98).22 Standing almost 3ft high it is another large-scale object. An even larger object bought from Sparks in 1947 for £400 is the polychrome wood figure of Guanyin dating to 12th-14th century (50_59), again the sort of imposing object which Burrell had not purchased before but which lent itself to a museum context and which added a greater dimension to an area of his collection.23

In these latter years Burrell did not altogether abandon his earlier taste. Some of Leonard Gow's collection of Chinese ceramics, mainly of the Kangxi period, was acquired by Burrell from Frank Partridge in 1943 (38_1028), along with other Kangxi examples from other former collections, such as Richard Bennett, bought from Sydney Moss in 1948 (38_730) and J. Pierpont Morgan, bought from H.R. Hancock in 1935 and Frank Partridge in 1940 (38_1029 and 38_904-38_905).24

It is safe to say that any survey of Sir William Burrell’s collection of Chinese art must come to the conclusion that he performed a major achievement. The comprehensiveness of the Chinese ceramic section alone is astounding bearing in mind that this is one man's collection. Most museum collections have been built up via benefactors and the time and expertise of specialist staff over generations. Burrell was no specialist having left school to join the family shipping firm at 15, had no contact with the other largely London-based specialist collectors and relied upon only a few advisors, most of whom were dealers.25 Neither did he spend on the scale of people like Frick, Pierpont-Morgan or Hearst. Between 1919 and 1939, the most he ever spent in a given year was £79,280 and for the most part his expenditure hovered between £30,000 and £40,000 and this was on all parts of his collection.26 He relied upon his judgment and business acumen, relished striking a hard bargain and always examined prospective purchases critically.

Burrell developed rapidly as a collector of Chinese art, broadening his interests from the standard Victorian and Edwardian taste for Kangxi ceramics to encompass the early wares that were coming out of China at the beginning of the 20th century via dealers such as John Sparks and Bluetts. That Burrell fed on the new research and discoveries being published and exhibited, especially in London from 1910 onwards and was literally educating himself as evinced by the key annotated works in his library, shows a man who was by the end of his life more than a collector: he was, I would venture to suggest, a connoisseur.

1. John Sparks Sales Ledger for 22nd July 1910. John Sparks Archive, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, University of London. Return
2. They were bought from E. Erison & Co and entered in Burrell’s first Purchase Book on 29th May 1911. The Purchase Books are held by the Burrell Collection. All subsequent references to Burrell’s acquisitions are to be found in the Purchase Books. Return
3. Minute by A.F. Kendrick, S.M. Franck & Co. Nominal Papers, MA/1/F1203, V&A Archive, London. S.M. Franck was certainly established as a company by 1883. Return
4. Minute of 29th July, 1910, S.M. Franck & Co. Nominal Papers, ibid. Return
5. Both from S.M. Franck, Sir William Burrell’s Purchase Book, 23rd April 1915, p.2 and Purchase Book 9th February 1914, p.16. Return
6. The Eumorfopoulos Collection, Sotheby’s, London, 28th-31st May, 1940.Return
7. From Frank Partridge, Purchase Book 2nd April 1942, p.10.Return
8. See Shelagh Vainker, “The Chinese Bronzes in The Burrell Collection”, Arts of Asia, May-June 1990, pp.116-118. The related bronze is the Kang Hou Gui in the British Museum. Return
9. Purchase Book, 20th April 1918, p.39.Return
10. Richard Marks, Burrell: Portrait of a Collector, Glasgow 1988, p.174. Return
11. Purchase Book, 23rd January 1947, p.5. Return
12. Sotheby’s: 13th, 25th, 26th March, 1942; 7th December, 1944; 29th-30th January, 1948. Return
13. Marks, ibid, p.174. Return
14. Marks, ibid, p.151. Return
15. Ibid, p.154. Return
16. Entered in Burrell’s Purchase Book on 17th April 1944, p.78. Return
17. Nick Pearce, A Group of Chinese Stoneware Buddhist Figures Reunited, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol.58, 1993-94, pp.37-50. Return
18. Three figures appear in John Sparks’ Stock Book for July 1936, all purchased for Sparks by their agent in China, T.T. Woo: the Guanyin figure, sold to Lord Leverhulme on 23rd May 1939 and the Bodhidharma and Budai figures, both broken in transit, and given to the V&A and British Museum respectively following an insurance claim. John Sparks Archives, Percival David Foundation, University of London. Return
19. Volume of Photographic References, John Sparks Archive. The Luohan appeared as an advertisement in Apollo, November 1936. Return
20. Agents Book, December 1943, John Sparks Archive. Return
21. Photographs (called References) in the Sparks Archive reveals a number of photographs of related Luohan, not all of which were purchased by Sparks, but which came from the same source in China. One certainly is the Burrell Luohan, another is the example in the Seattle Art Museum (33.1146, Eugene Fuller Memorial Bequest), which according to the Museum records, dates it to 1484. Return
22. Purchase Book, 27th June 1945, p.38. Return
23. Purchase Book, 21st May 1947, p.67. Return
24. Purchase Books for 13th May 1943, p.51; 4th December 1948, p.21; 9th May 1935, p. 54; 13th June 1940, p.54. Return
25. Professor Walter Perceval Yetts (1878-1957) was one of the few academics from whom Burrell took advice late in life, primarily in the area of bronzes. Yetts was the first Professor of Chinese Art and Archaeology at London University, a post he held between 1932 and 1946. Return
26. Marks, ibid, p.125. Return

Jade ritual vessel
Jade ritual vessel

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Bronze ritual vessel

 Burrell, Sir William
Burrell, Sir William

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