Would William Burrell have voted for Scottish independence? The shipping magnate and philanthropist certainly took his cultural bearings from Europe rather than from England. His French 19th-century paintings, bought in Glasgow in the 1920s when London taste was insular, comprise one of the best British collections ever privately assembled. Meanwhile his group of Degas pastels, its highlight the rare, monumental portrait of slender-fingered, bright-eyed, mocking art critic “Edmond Duranty” against a kaleidoscope of books, inkpots and magnifying glasses, is unrivalled.

These glorious, delicate, light-sensitive works have just gone on show in their entirety for the first time, part of the exhibition Bellini to Boudin: Five Centuries of Painting in the Burrell Collection. It opened last week in circumstances that would have disturbed Burrell. He donated the pictures, part of a stash of more than 8,000 works, to Glasgow in 1944, with two stipulations: that they be housed in a purpose-built museum at least 16 miles from the polluted city centre, and that – because of the risks of sea travel – they never go on tour abroad. Both these restrictions are now removed.

Glasgow eventually opened the Burrell Collection in Pollok Park, four miles south of the city, in 1983. Built during economic recession to a tough brief – to accommodate Burrell’s mix of antique sculptures, oriental decorative arts, tapestries, stained glass, impressionist paintings – it is a timber-and-glass masterpiece of architectural design from the unloved 1970s, Grade A-listed last year. But its magnificent laminated Russian pine roof now leaks – water was dripping into Bellini to Boudin the day before it opened – and pictures from the exhibition, among other works, will tour internationally to help fund the building’s £45m refurbishment from 2016-20.

This became possible because in January the Scottish Parliament passed a controversial bill to amend Burrell’s foreign travel ban. It was a patriotic decision: Scotland may be independent by the time the works take to the road, and at interested institutions, ranging from New York’s Metropolitan to Asian museums attracted by Glasgow’s under-researched world-class Chinese ceramics, Burrell’s acquisitions will be cultural calling cards to raise Scotland’s profile around the world. Nevertheless, extracts do not do justice to Burrell’s vision. If ever a collection and museum are more than the sum of their parts, it is the Burrell – which is a reason to visit Glasgow now.

Bellini to Boudin, a finely judged display of some 50 paintings showcased together before the museum’s closure in 2016, really takes fire from its context. When Burrell died half a century ago, aged 97, his collection looked quintessentially, crazily, Victorian: reconstructions of cluttered medieval-revival reception rooms from his home in Berwick-on-Tweed, a crimson velvet canopy made for Elizabeth I, Ming vases, Iznik porcelain and Japanese prints stand alongside Cézanne’s pioneering deconstruction of landscape “Château de Médan” and Manet’s dissection of urban alienation in a disconcertingly mirrored pastel of a desolate drinker and bored waiter, “A Café on the Place du Théâtre Français”.

In 1944, Burrell seemed to be the last of the generalists: by the mid-20th century, collecting had become more specific, markets more niche, and such diverse holdings were rare. But in the 21st century, the collections of the super-rich are again characterised by multimedia breadth, by rejection of hierarchies and by global scope: the Al-Thani of Qatar collect Roman antiquities, 18th-century French furniture and Cézanne, Hirst, Koons; Liu Yiqian, China’s leading collector, shows Song and Qing dynasty pieces alongside contemporary art.

So Burrell’s Victorian hoard today looks like smart crossover. Its Disney-meets-modernism aesthetic is brilliantly emphasised by Barry Glasson’s streamlined building, incorporating original Romanesque arches into smooth pink-brick modern façades, medieval church windows into contemporary plate-glass walls and nature into art: circular stone pillars imitate Pollok Park’s sycamores and chestnuts, and dappled light pouring through the trees illuminates an enfilade of large, open galleries.

Everything here is about synthesis, unity, patterns of form and colour, echoed and paraphrased, across the centuries. The paintings are arranged mostly by subject, not chronology or artist – reflecting Burrell’s criteria in buying them. The shipbuilder liked intelligently constructed, firm, definite works that celebrate the material world. Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s “The Dog” is so strikingly naturalistic that it is almost trompe l’oeil: the representation of the alert hound was intended to stand in a fireplace during summer to exclude draught and give the impression of a real dog waiting there. Théodore Géricault’s “The Prancing Grey Horse” leaps in the air, creating plumes of gold dust sprinkled across the canvas, contrasting with the dense, quickly applied paint denoting the animal’s powerful body. Eugène Boudin’s “Jetty, Trouville” is a vigorous study of wind on a beach – flying scarves, blowing flags and choppy waves.

The Burrell Museum, Glasgow
The Burrell Museum, Glasgow © Alamy

Among Old Masters, Burrell preferred the robust Gothic of northern Europe to Italian Renaissance refinement. Elongated Flemish Madonnas and sinuous Cranachs – including a forceful scarlet “Judith” – resonate with the intricately carved medieval stone portals punctuating the building, while Cranach’s “The Stag Hunt” answers the fantastical forests in the 15th-16th-century German tapestries, which Burrell rated his greatest acquisitions. He probably bought his single Italian stunner, Bellini’s “Virgin and Child”, for its sumptuous gold frame – although, interestingly, what animates this simplified, serene composition is an embroidery motif: a flower dangling from a thread.

Still life has a special place in this collection. An early Chardin “Still Life” (1728), simply focused on the glint of light on a brown jug and the crisp leaves of a cabbage, hangs in conversation with a very late Manet, the exquisitely pared-down “A Pink Rose and A Yellow Rose” (1882), painted when the frail artist was capable of working only in short bouts. And Chardin’s “The Ray” is a perfect, textural Burrell picture: vertical lines of the glistening silver-red fish hanging from a hook balance the horizontals of the cold smooth stone shelf, but the geometry is enlivened by a predatory cat, stretching its paw towards a porcelain bowl.

It was such cerebral approaches that attracted Burrell to French painting, and particularly opened the mind of this most traditional collector to the innovations of Degas. “What I do is the result of reflection and the study of the great masters; spontaneity, inspiration and temperament mean nothing to me,” Degas said.

Apparently casual compositions such as “The Rehearsal”, with its bold empty central space, were precisely orchestrated, the spiral staircase on one side anchoring the billowing ballerinas at the back. The pastels are especially daring: sky-blue marks streaking the floorboards and dancer’s bodice contrasting with leaf-green hues in the dramatically cropped “The Green Dress”; sweeping charcoal strokes denoting a curvaceous figure versus bright bands of pastel in “Woman at her Toilette”. Magisterial draughtsmanship, looking back to Ingres here, underpins modernist fragmentation, flurried smudges and abstracted colour, to achieve harmony in spite of dissonance – the leitmotif of the entire Burrell collection.

‘Bellini to Boudin: Five Centuries of Painting in the Burrell Collection’, Glasgow, to 2016. glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/burrell-collection

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