As most people know Sir William Burrell made a gift of his extensive collection to the City of Glasgow in 1944. What perhaps is lesser known is that for the previous eight years he tried to give it to ‘the Nation’ and have it sited in London. Part of that story is told in a series of letters held by the National Archives.
During 1935 Sir Eric Maclagan, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London visited Sir William Burrell at Hutton Castle. The object of the visit was to discuss Burrell’s proposed gift of his collection to the Nation. Subsequently on the 25th November of that year Burrell wrote to Sir Eric as he felt it necessary to clarify his intentions with respect to his collection. Essentially the letter contained a number of conditions that would have to be met. They included that the collection would be housed in London, it should be an entirely new museum and not be a part of any other, the Government should pay for the new museum’s upkeep, and that it should have its own staff headed by a director. Sir William also proposed to bequeath a large sum of money which would be used to buy additions to the collection. He finished by writing that if the collection was not accepted by the Nation (which meant agreeing to his conditions), he had made arrangements for it to go elsewhere.
As far as the letters in the National Archives are concerned that was that until 1942. On the 6th April Burrell wrote to the art and antique dealer Frank Partridge referring to a recent conversation they had. Partridge appears to have been used as an intermediary/negotiator between the government and Burrell as the letter refers to an enclosure which again contained the conditions attached to his gift, and a list of his collection’s locations which were generally in England. He asked Partridge to pass on this document to a Major Cazalet*, along with a photograph of Hutton Castle, so that he could have both on him when seeing “Mr. Eden or Mr. Churchill”. He added that he had spent £43,000 on the castle structure after he bought it.
The enclosure began by Burrell saying that he understood that the country was engaged in a life and death struggle and that the Prime Minister and the government were being overwhelmed with work and that his timing was inopportune. He added he had delayed for that reason for three years but was concerned that as he was now in his early eighties he would die before his gift had been accepted. He stated that he wanted the collection to stay in England and not to be sold off after his death, in particular to American museums.
As before he wanted the collection to be located in London as that would allow it to be seen by a larger numbers of visitors than it would be anywhere else. Whilst not mentioned, it is understood he still wished it to be housed in a new museum. He also indicated that he would bequeath the whole of his estate (the collection and everything else) to be managed by g0vernment trustees for the purchase of “fine things” for the collection. In an aside he stated that his daughter had already been provided for.
Finally he wanted to leave Hutton Castle and its 1,800 acres, with good partridge and pheasant shooting, as a holiday resort for Government Ministers.
At this time his collection was housed in various locations including the National Gallery, the Tate (300 pictures), the cathedrals of Salisbury, Ely, Winchester and Chichester, Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, and various other museums in places such as Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, Edinburgh and Birmingham.
On the 17th April a note (marked secret) was sent from the Treasury to C.H. Wakely, Inland Revenue Commissioner, requiring financial and taxation information to be established. The writer states that Sir Horace J. Wilson** of the Treasury believes the collection is valued at £1,000,000, he wants to understand the extent of Burrell’s wealth as shown by income producing assets, and the potential taxation and estate duty liabilities if any. He stated that certain artistic items would not attract estate duty, however was of the belief that there was no provision for relief from estate duty generally and that an estate valued at £1,000,000, liable for 60% would lose the Exchequer £600,000 and essentially that would mean they were paying for the bequest. Nonetheless Wakely, with others, was asked to determine the exact situation and identify the relevant estate duty provisions.
Sir Eric Maclagan wrote to Sir Horace Wilson on the 18th April referring to his meeting with Burrell in 1935. He indicated that he had advised Burrell that his conditions were likely to be costly due to the size of building required and its location in central London, and was unclear as to who was paying for it (hence Burrell’s letter of the 25th November 1935). He also was concerned about the number of staff required. Maclagan expressed the view to Burrell that he should consider linking any bequest to an existing museum, the Victoria and Albert say. As the letter of the 25th November indicates that was not acceptable.
Also on the 18th April an internal Treasury note (again marked secret) was sent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Anderson, possibly from Sir John Henry Wood, Private Assistant Secretary to the Chancellor. In it the writer states that he had been given Burrell’s written proposal, as per the 6th April 1942, by Major Cazalet. He goes on to say that Cazalet (a friend and supporter of Churchill) believes the Prime Minister should write to Burrell accepting his offer. The writer of the note does not support that saying that there are complications and that he would investigate those. He also adds that he has consulted Sir Eric Maclagan, Sir Kenneth Clark (Director of the National Gallery and of ‘Civilisation’ fame)and Sir Alan Barlow (Treasury), who discussed the proposal with John Rothenstein (Director of the Tate Gallery). All of these individuals agreed that the collection included a number of fine objects but also had a considerable number of items that were not particularly noteworthy. In an attached handwritten note John Rothenstein is quoted as saying that of the paintings in the Tate, some are first rate but the majority are of a type and standard well represented in other London galleries and that they would be better off in provincial galleries. Building a museum which would house such paintings would be a waste of money.
The rest of the note repeats previous concerns about building costs and operating expenses, and taxation issues, and states that there is a general antipathy to the establishment of a separate museum or museums to house the collection. It concludes by saying that the Prime Minister should write to Burrell stating his appreciation of the offer but that some negotiation would be required to deal with points raised. The writer suggested Mr. R A Butler (Rab) should be the PM’s delegate in this matter.
On the 21st April C.H. Wakely wrote to Sir Horace Wilson detailing his answers to the questions raised in the Treasury note of the 17th April. He confirmed that pictures and other works of art that are bequeathed “for national purposes” are exempt from estate duty. He also confirmed that any monies bequeathed to establish and maintain an Art Gallery would not get estate duty relief. He added however that any gift made to the crown before death would be exempt. He also reiterated, as others had, that any exemption to estate duty made the Exchequer a ‘contributor’ to the purpose behind the exemption. A hand written comment on the letter stated that Burrell’s income producing assets were £600,000.
There followed three pages of detailed analysis of the treatment of death duties in a variety of circumstances.
In a letter of the 23rd April to Sir William the writer, having seen Burrell’s letter to Frank Partridge of the 6th April, offered to visit Hutton Castle to discuss what he described as “your magnificent offer”. He also said that if he would prefer to deal with a member of government then he would arrange it. This suggests the letter writer, whose address was given as The Dorchester, may have been Eric Maclagan or Kenneth Clark.
On the 11th May a note from the Inland Revenue to Sir Horace Wilson states that Hutton Castle and the estate are owned by the Hutton Estate Company Ltd. which was formed in 1921, practically all of the shares being held by Sir William.
Thereafter all is quiet until the 11th August when Sir Eric Maclagan writes to Sir Alan Barlow to say that he understood the Burrell affair had ended in silence. Barlow replies on the 13th August saying that no more has been heard about it and that the assumption is that the proposal is dead.
Well, not quite. On the 11th November Alan Barlow received a letter from A. R. Wood Comptroller of London County Council’s department of Subject and Policy in which he states that Burrell now appears to want to hand over his collection to the Council. Mr. Wood fundamentally repeats all the questions asked previously and seeks the Treasury’s view on tax and exemption. Sir Alan’s reply on the 12th was that if bequeathed to the council the collection would be free from death duties as would a gift if he died within twelve months. He also adds that for any associated endowment fund there is a prime facie case for assuming that fund income would not be taxed however a definitive answer would depend on the terms of the trust.
A. R. Wood responded to Barlow’s letter on the 24th November saying that the council had decided to accept a formal offer of the collection with the proviso that it did not entail an excessive charge on the rates. He also indicated that the Council would prefer that Sir William handed over his collection and greater part of his other estate to trustees and that after one year these trustees would offer the collection et al to London County Council. He also adds that if London did not accept it at this time the gift should be offered to other local authorities named in the Trust Deed so that it could be available for public view in one place or in several. He then goes on again to ask about death duties and other taxation, pretty much as before. He closes by saying that he hopes that contact will be made with Sir William through Sir Kenneth Clark.
On the 25th November Barlow wrote to the Chairman of the Inland Revenue Board Sir Cornelius Gregg stating the Burrell was now “coquetting” with London County Council. He refers to the letters sent to him by A.R. Wood on the 11th and 24th November and asks for advice on what to reply on the proposed Trust and its possible liabilities.
Gregg’s advice came on the 2nd December which was fundamentally no different from that given previously by other Treasury and Revenue personnel. The only additional point he made was that the Trust should not sin “against the rule against perpetuities”. He also adds, as others had, that the terms of the Trust need to be seen before finally deciding on the matter. Barlow in a letter to A.R. Wood on the 3rd December passed on all that Gregg’s letter contained.
The last entries in the Archives documents states the following: Undated but has to be circa December 1942 into early 1943 – ” No further developments, no obituary, no index reference. 11th November 1943 – as above. 9th February 1944 – as above.”
Archive References: T273/52 CS96662 and IR62/2054 C619691.
What came next was that on the 24th January 1944 a special meeting of Glasgow Corporation’s Art Galleries committee was convened to consider Sir William’s proposed gift/bequest of his collection to Glasgow. On the 2nd of February the same committee recommended that the Corporation should accept the offer. By the 18th April 1944 it was all done and dusted, with the completion of the Memorandum of Agreement.
Glasgow Corporation References: Glasgow Corporation Minutes November 1943-April 1944. Mitchell Library Reference C1/3/109.
Page 396 – 24th January 1944, Page 460 – 2nd February 1944, Page 816 – 18th April 1944.
Why did Burrell change his mind? He clearly wanted his collection to be regarded as, at least, of European importance, hence his desire to have it housed in London and in a specifically created museum. Time was clearly pressing for him because of his age and that may have created significant impatience with the whole London/taxation process. He was a difficult man to deal with anyway, his frustration would add to that, especially if he felt thwarted, he was a man who liked to get his own way by all accounts. The key issue seems to have been Glasgow’s willingness to be liable for all taxation/duty although the expectation was there would be none. The Corporation also became liable for all insurance, storage, and other expenses connected with the collection, from the date of the gift.
* Major Victor Alexander Cazalet was Conservative MP for Chippenham. Prior to WWII he had supported Winston Churchill against the appeasement of Germany. During the war he became the liasion between the War Office and the leader of the Polish Government in Exile General Sikorski. They were both killed, along with thirteen others, on the 4th July 1943 when their aircraft crashed taking off from Gibralter. He was a great friend of the parents of film actress Elizabeth Taylor and was her godfather. http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/fallen-alumni/colonel-victor-alexander-cazalet
** Sir Horace John Wilson was a civil servant who supported the Chamberlain government’s appeasement policy before the war, becoming a significant confidant of the prime minister. He was appointed permanent secretary to the Treasury and head of the civil service in 1939. When Churchill became prime minister he was banned from Number Ten because of appeasement and was eventually forced to retire in August 1942, having made enemies of Churchill and also Clement Attlee, because of his influence in rejecting the Labour party’s economic (Keynesian) policies of the late 1920s. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31844?docPos=1
2 thoughts on “Sir William Burrell’s Nearly Gift to London.”
Really interesting piece, thank you! I wondered if you could please share the details of the November 1935 letter from Burrell to Maclagan with me? I can find the two relating to the London County Council on the National Archives catalogue but not the 1935 letters. Thanks so much, Isobel
I got all my information on Burrell’s proposed gift to London from the National Archives via a FOI request about 4/5 years ago. There were a number of letters dated 1942 included in which was one from Maclagan written on the 18th April to Horace Wilson of the Treasury which discussed his visit to Burrell in 1935. Attached to that letter was a copy of Burrell’s November note to Maclagan, the essentials of which are included in my post. There is very little else.
I would guess that the NA would not be able to pick up on a detail of a record which was listed under a more general heading.
I take it you have an involvement with Glasgow Museums?