Introduction to William Burrell’s 17th Century Beadwork Baskets

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Large beadwork basket in The Burrell Collections, Pollok Country Park, Glasgow. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

Beads have been used for thousands of years by different societies for a variety of functions. They have been used as trading tokens and their beauty can be seen on an array of costumes, accessories and miscellaneous objects from across the globe. However, some of the most extraordinary objects to be decorated in this way are seventeenth-century baskets, of which The Burrell Collection has two.

Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) was a passionate and respected collector. Throughout his life he collected thousands of items, many of which he donated to the City of Glasgow in 1944. Never a slave to fashions, nor a fan of the avant-garde, he defined his collecting tastes at an early stage and strongly adhered to them throughout his collecting days. Due to this The Burrell Collection has a large selection of beadwork and needlework dating from the seventeenth-century.

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Close up of the couple depicted on the large basket Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

Attracted by their technical precision and beauty he was particularly drawn to canvas work pictures of which there are thirty-one in the collection. Heraldry and pieces relating to historical individuals were also of high interest to him. The collection has pieces said to have been worn by Charles II and Oliver Cromwell but he may have accepted these claims too readily. Burrell’s purchase books show that he thought the figures depicted on the basket’s base panel to have been Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. This may well be the reason for his purchase of the large rectangular basket.

The baskets purchased on the 1st April 1927 are clearly detailed in both Partridge and Sons sales books and William Burrell’s own purchase books. Burrell gives a full description of the objects in his purchase books as the large one is described as “a very fine Stuart beadwork basket finely worked with fruit and flowers on the sides and the centre part worked with figures of King and Queen with animals and flowers on a background of silk 25” and 19 ½ in tortoishell (tortoiseshell) case” and the smaller one as “a small early Stuart beadwork basket –oval shaped worked with figures in center and surrounded by animals and leaves in a tortoishell (tortoiseshell) case.” It is known from the purchase books that both baskets were delivered to Hutton castle in August 1927.

There are several of these baskets in existence, yet little is actually known about them. Secondary literature reflects this lack of scholarly research; bead work is only mentioned in reference to other needle crafts, such as stump work or embroidery. There is an extensive library of literature dealing with needlework and the lives of woman in early modern Britain. Needlework as a form of education and the advancement of skill and techniques have been addressed, but historical beading techniques and bead-work of the period have not been fully investigated. However, surviving collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Lady lever Art Gallery, Maidstone Museum, The Metropolitan Museum and the Burrell Collection have proved to be invaluable when researching such a fascinating topic.

Both baskets are currently on display in the Needlework Room at The Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

(Part of MLitt Dissertation entitled ‘Perfectly Curious: A Study on The Burrell Collection’s 17th Century Beadwork Basket’, The University of Glasgow 2011. All ©  Karen Mailley )

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