Politics

The Burrell is one of the UK’s greatest museums. I can’t wait for it to reopen, says Maggie Ritchie

THE announcement this week that The Burrell Collection had acquired its first ever sculpture by a female artist came as a sharp reminder that the art gallery will have been closed for six years by the time it reopens in March.

One of the jewels in Glasgow museums’ crown with 9,000 works of art in a stunning modern glass gallery that looks out over Pollok Country Park, it is right on my doorstep.

But, perhaps like many people, I’d come to take it for granted since moving to Glasgow 30 years ago when I was first blown away by the eclectic collection amassed over 75 years by shipping magnate Sir William Burrell.

By the time it closed for a massive refurbishment in 2016, I’d stopped seeking out the paintings by Degas, Cezanne and the Glasgow Boys among the Chinese porcelain – the finest collection in Europe – Islamic art and medieval tapestries.

With a child in tow who was more interested in the adventure playpark across the way, the Burrell became a convenient place to use the loo and shelter from the rain.

But when I heard that Camille Claudel’s L’Implorante will be the latest sculpture to join those of her lover Auguste Rodin, I couldn’t have been more excited.

Their tempestuous and tragic – for Claudel anyway – affair was the inspiration for my first novel, Paris Kiss, after seeing her work on display in the Rodin Museum in Paris on my honeymoon. Claudel always protested that her work was overshadowed by that of Rodin, whose atelier she joined.

The sculpture acquired by the Burrell is part of a three-piece work of art, L’Age Mur (The Mature Age), ostensibly an allegory about ageing, showing a young woman on her knees, pleading with a middle-aged man to stay, while he’s dragged away by a crone towards death.

Claudel admitted it also scandalously reflected her love triangle with Rodin, who refused to marry her and leave the long-term relationship he had with Rose Beuret, the mother of his son and later his wife.

When the affair ended in 1892 the two artists remained on good terms, but when Rodin saw this sculpture he was so furious he cut off his support for Claudel.

Isolated and growing increasingly eccentric, she claimed that Rodin had stolen her ideas. Her end was tragic – her family committed her to an insane asylum where she died alone and forgotten, until being rediscovered in the 1980s.

Now I couldn’t be happier that Claudel’s work will be seen in this country, displayed along with Rodin’s sculptures, collected by Burrell, who was ahead of his time with his fascination for 19th century French art, then seen as avant-garde and derided by the art world.

He was such a good customer that the Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid made special trips to Paris to seek out new works to entice Burrell who, despite his vast wealth, struck a hard bargain to build one of the world’s most impressive personal collections.

Burrell joined his father’s shipbuilding company in 1875 at the age of 14 and bought his first painting in his teens with a few shillings he got from selling his cricket bat.

His taste was wide-ranging, and his collection includes paintings by Cezanne, Manet, Degas and Rembrandt, as well as the valance from Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn’s bed, embroidered with the couple’s initials HA, the rare Meiping Vase from the Ming dynasty, and the stone head of an Ancient Egyptian queen.

Burrell donated his collection to the city in 1944 after summoning the Director of the Glasgow Art Galleries Tom Honeyman to a secret meeting. The move was described at the time by Sir Hector Hetherington, Principal of Glasgow University as “one of the greatest gifts ever made to any city in the world”.

The Burrell Collection, opened by the Queen in 1983 and visited by a million people that year, is rightly ranked among the most significant in the UK, comparable to the National Gallery and the V&A.

I can’t wait for it to re-open – and this time I won’t be nipping in out of the rain but admiring the exhibits. I look forward to seeing my favourite: ‘Model of the Dog’, a pug with a curly tale and friendly face sculpted in ceramic during the Chinese Han Dynasty, aeons before the breed became fashionable here.

But first, I’ll head straight to L’Implorante and reflect on Camille Claudel’s courage as a woman artist in what was then very much a man’s world, and thank her for her inspiring me to become an author.

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