The Burrell Collection at Glasgow Museums

By Shane Smith

I recently went on a jaunt to the United Kingdom as I am wont to do on occasion and I found my way via the gracious invitation of Professor Tobias Capwell (Curator; Glasgow Museums) to a place that without a doubt, houses one of the most intriguingly presented collections of artifacts I have ever seen. Indeed, only the Wallace Collection in London rivals it thus far in my opinion and experience when it comes to the quality and intimate presentation of the collection.

From London, it's about a restful six hour train ride through the scenic English and Scottish country sides to Glasgow Central and then a short ride from there to Pollock's Park wherein lies the Burrell Collection of the Glasgow Museums…What is the Burrell Collection you ask? I answer "where do I begin!". None the less, let's simply begin at the beginning…

History of the Collection

The Burrell Collection is no more or less than the culmination of the life's work of one very passionate collector of fine art and antiquities; Sir William Burrell. Sir William spent much of his youth amassing a small fortune in the shipping industry in concert with his brother George. They took the helm of the families shipping business as it had been passed to them by their father in 1885 and Sir William's visionary and innovative approach of gambling on buying ships for the Burrell and Son fleet during hard times and then selling the fleets in favorable market conditions set him in good financial stead and he was already a renowned collector of art within Scotland by the early twentieth century. Indeed, he lent some 200 artifacts to the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901.

Still, Burrell remained a man with divided attentions. It was not until the Burrell and Son fleet was liquidated circa 1916-18 that William was finally able to pursue his love of collecting full-time thanks to wise investments that allowed him to fund his passion with the interest gained on those investments. In 1944, Burrell, in an act of unmatched benevolence, gifted the contents of his life-long art collection to the City of Glasgow in the name or he and his wife, Lady Burrell. On top of that, he ultimately gifted nearly half a million pounds to build a place in which to house the collection. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it completed, yet his remaining days were not wasted. He continued to gather pieces and add them to his initial kingly gift to the City he loved most from birth until his death at Hutton Castle in 1958 at the admirable age of 96.

Sir William collected many different things and the Burrell Collection contains pieces representing many cultures and periods. Many early Chinese ceramics, fine paintings, European tapestries and stained glass to name a few things in evidence…the latter arguably without peer. But of most interest to we Swordsmen perhaps, the collection of medieval artifacts is on the whole, one of the finest in the world.

The Collection finally found an innovative and visionary home worthy of it's namesake in Glasgow's scenic Pollok's Park circa 1983. The building that houses the Collection is worthy of an essay of its own, yet such is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice to say, to see modern architecture and methods melded skillfully and artfully with original stone and architectural elements is simply startling. Every nook and cranny of the structure was obviously well thought out to accent the various displays. The afore-mentioned medieval stained glass collection in particular is truly glorious and is only enhanced by the manner in which the buildings architecture allows the natural sunlight to show through, just as it did hundreds of years ago when the works were young. Breathtaking!

Why should Swordsmen care?

The Burrell Collection is comprehensive in scope, yet of most interest to we Swordsmen and practitioners perhaps, the collection of medieval artifacts is a walk through history in a very real sense…Especially when a man such as Tobias Capwell, Curator Glasgow Museums, is kind enough to walk with you personally and share his thoughts and insights into the various pieces as he did with me on this occasion. Most importantly, he stressed that we must be keen to consider the body of medieval artwork holistically or one could very easily fail to see the forest for the trees. No historic piece or work stands alone in the absolute sense and we can only begin to understand a work's significance when we also consider the whole of the culture that created it. How can we truly understand the "why's" behind a work, be it a fine tapestry or a sword, if we don't examine the "who's" and "what's" that led to its creation?

Consider this one dilemma for instance; just why do so many period Knightly images and fighting manuals commonly show armoured men not wearing gauntlets? That seeming incongruity has long troubled me as an armoured combat enthusiast and researcher. The Burrell Collections medieval period stained glass and priceless tapestries reinforce that concept as there is no shortage of important pieces held on display for viewing that depict just such a practice. From images of battle to those that seem to depict religious rituals, there is simply no shortage of images that clearly show us men armoured head to toe sans gauntlets…And not just in Scotland. Why? I have long held that men of the time were willing to trade up in dexterity and risk the increased vulnerability in armoured combat that comes with the setting aside of hand protection. I firmly believe based on my own research that this is a very likely reason for this. I would likewise contend that many manuals and period images show men with visors lifted while actively engaged in combat for much the same reasons. Yet, I have had little trouble performing period techniques in my fully articulated gauntlets. That always bothered me and it really gave pause for concern in reference to my pet theory. Life is a compromise and always has been.

Tobias Capwell upon noting my obvious interest in this point as I viewed the antiquities asked me what the manuals I had viewed this in had to say on the matter. I honestly confessed that they made no mention of the matter. Only the illuminations showed it with indisputable clarity. "What do those manuals have in common?" was the next question in order. "Well, they seem to be mostly 15th century German texts" I replied. After thinking a moment, Capwell responded that gauntlets with little to no finger articulation were fairly common in German circles in that period and he speculated that perhaps this is why the Germans show no gauntlets in may cases, i.e. those in common use at the time in the geographical area in question may have been wholly unsuited to the type of one on one foot combat we see in the source-texts such as Gladiatoria and others.

When mounted and running men through with the lance or simply chopping down from on high with the sword, comparatively little wrist and finger dexterity was needed so as most Knightly combat was arguably conducted from horse back, gauntlets to support the wrist from wrenching motions common to the pursuit came about. The pinnacle of this train of thought is seen in many period sport jousting harnesses that darn near lock the arms and body into a cohesive unit via stiff/sparse articulation of stout plates once the lance is couched.

It is interesting to note that the Italian source-texts do show gauntlets as a fairly fast rule of a comparatively finely articulated pattern that makes good hilt work quite workable and therefore, there was no reason to remove them for combat or for dueling. The tradeoff simply may not have been worth it to Fiore the Italian Master, whose equipment allowed good dexterity as a function of it's design that met the perceived needs of fighting men in that area of the world at the time. My gauntlets are of that pattern. That is arguably the reason why I had no trouble working these techniques in my fingered gauntlets… neither did Fiore! Had I been wearing my fingered AND mitten Avant-pattern gauntlets when I first began my research, I may have made the connection much sooner! Clamshell gauntlets do make a difference and I could see that an argument could readily be made for setting them aside in the duel when subtlety and dexterity may well be more important than maximum protection from random blows.

What does all of this mean? Well, if we consider the historical insights of one of the worlds leading Curators of arms and armour along with the artifacts themselves and contrast that with what we see in the historical source-texts and what our own experiences in practicing the period combat methods show us, we begin to have the basis for a relatively sound theory. This is only possible because we have considered the evidence holistically and in doing so, we have used the "what's", "how's" and "who's" to help us discover the "why's". The preceding problem is only one example of many possible questions to which one can apply such sound and rational observation. The possibilities for such an all-encompassing approach to research is literally limited only by your own motivation and imagination.

Our approaches to understanding histological artifacts and the Historical European Martial Arts as depicted in the source-texts are complementary and co-dependant upon one-another. How could a Swordsman claim to know how fighting men of the day used swords in defense of life and limb if he had no working knowledge of the social and martial considerations of the time in question? Much less, had he not handled or examined period pieces for himself in context nor engaged in vigorous hands-on martial training with reasonably accurate replica weapons and armours. Anyone attempting such a narrow approach is almost surely doomed to mediocrity if not outright falsity in their conclusions and their craft. To understand what these men did and why, we must first endeavor to find out who they were and why. A scholarly look to the historical record and the artifacts that represent it give us that background that we as practitioners desperately need. If we strive to be complete Swordsmen, we must work to have a complete view of history. That is why a walk through time is pre-requisite to understanding. The Burrell Collection and Glasgow Museums are great places to go for a walk!


Note: The word "ARMA" and its associated arms emblem is a federally registered trademark under U.S. Reg. No. 3831037. In addition, the content on this website is federally registered with the United States Copyright Office, © 2001-2022. All rights are reserved. No use of the ARMA name and emblem, or website content, is permitted without authorization. Reproduction of material from this site without written permission of The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and its respective authors is strictly prohibited. Additional material may also appear from "HACA" The Historical Armed Combat Association copyright © 1999-2001 by John Clements. All rights are reserved to that material as well.