AS a child, I often passed a grand townhouse near the top of Byres Road where a metal plaque reads: Sir William Burrell Shipping Magnate & Art Collector Lived Here 1902-1927 I knew about the art collection but I had no idea what a shipping magnate was. Later, at school, I learned that Burrell had inherited a fleet of cargo barges during the heyday of the Clyde shipping boom.

The wealth amassed from its operation and sale gave Burrell the means to buy his art. In 1944 he bequeathed it to the city, to be enjoyed by descendants of the riggers, riveters, dockers, barge-drivers and boatsmen who made him rich.

The Burrell Collection is promoted as the “greatest gift ever made”, a memorial of generosity of one of the cargo capitalists who commandeered the Clyde. Perhaps it is time to see it as a monument to the graft of the workers at home and overseas.

The National: Sir William BurrellSir William Burrell

My childhood self was enchanted by the Burrell’s statues of deities plundered from the colonies. I paid no attention at all to the Degas pastels that caught my eye on a recent visit. Women in a Theatre Box is dated 1885-90, the period when Burrell and his brother took over the company from their father. I had just finished reading Julian Barnes’s The Man in the Red Coat, which describes the cocktail of frivolity and refinement that fizzed in fin de siecle France.

Barnes agrees with a compatriot of Degas who called him “the greatest artist we possess in France”. Degas’s vivid scene captures the extravagance and the intrusive male gaze of high society Paris, which must have appealed to Burrell.

This was a world far removed from industrial Clydeside. The time of the Belle Epoque was also the era of the Glasgow Boys, whose paintings captured rural scenes from around Glasgow, as well as the grittier life of labour shown in John Lavery’s Shipbuilding on the Clyde.

Between 1811 and Burrell’s birth in 1861, Glasgow’s population had more than trebled with an influx of workers from Ireland and the Highlands. Customs revenue had grown from £3000 to more than £900,000 and the number of ships registered in Glasgow had increased from 24, capable of transporting 2000 tons, to 679, carrying more than 200,000 tons. Clyde form crack steamers were regarded as the best in the world.

The National: Women in a theatre boxWomen in a theatre box

None of the objects on display in the collection depicts the industry that made Burrell rich. Burrell preferred his art to document the labour of the past. Indeed, he was especially proud of his medieval tapestries which showed the work of hunting, haymaking, ploughing, sowing, and reaping.

His world-famous tapestry collection is curated alongside a set of stained glass works called Labour of the Months. In one, a frowning man with a yellow-trimmed coat, broad-rimmed hat, and peasant clogs or sabots digs a field while an ox pulls a plough in mid-distance, all within view of a grand manor house.

Another shows men slaughtering a pig next to a colleague with a pegleg and crutches, who presumably suffered a work-based injury.

Again, a plough toils behind, and on the horizon is another domineering manor. Is it a fair analogy to picture a teenage Burrell at a window of his family home in Bowling, watching dockers toiling in the harbour while the barges steamed by like water-borne oxen?

Burrell began buying art when he lived in Bowling in the 1870s. By the 80s, while Degas was painting ballerinas and theatre-goers, Burrell and his brother were guiding the company through difficult waters.

The National: John Lavery's Shipbuilding on the ClydeJohn Lavery's Shipbuilding on the Clyde

When skilled men working for them organised strike action, the Burrells responded with a lock-out, not re-opening the business until the strike was broken.

The following year, they increased the pay not of the skilled workers but of the lower-earning labourers. We should picture Burrell not as a ruthless fat-cat making dirty money, but as a diligent and hawkish dealmaker, operating at a time when exploiting labour and plundering colonies was unexceptional.

Burrell & Son’s business of just-in-time, unchartered cargo-carrying was known as the tramp trade and itinerant workers were hired as and when needed.

In 1889, dockers in Glasgow staged a major strike and its seismic effect was felt up and down the Clyde. Many of the ship operators brought in unskilled labour to take their place. Their work was inefficient, dangerous, and sometimes fatal.

It was barely productive enough to keep the companies afloat.

Nevertheless, the strike was eventually broken. Facing defeat, organisers got creative. Since their employers had insisted the unskilled scabs were just as effective as skilled workers, the strike committee resolved to return to the docks and do as the unskilled workers did.

They worked at snail’s pace, dropped items into the water, and caused havoc on one of the world’s great waterways. Soon, this tactic won them their demands. Word of this victory had reached the ears of trade unionists in France.

The anarchist Emile Pouget, born a year before Burrell, was an expert in importing arts of resistance.

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Before long he was spreading the word about the new Clyde methods. He gave speeches praising the “Ca’ Canny” approach and promoted a new term for working as if you are unskilled.

Since scabs generally came from the countryside, they were traditionally associated with their rough wooden footwear, their sabots. Pouget said that to work in the way unskilled workers did was to practice sabotage. While Glasgow’s maritime magnates imported high art from Paris, Parisian trades unionists were importing arts of resistance from Glasgow.

Both endure today.

lTo learn more about Clydeside sabotage, take a free interactive course on the Sma Shot School: Ca Canny: A Workshop on Scotland’s Hidden Treasure, tutored by Amy Westwell, Paul Malgrati, and myself. Visit lThe statistics about Glasgow shipbuilding and details of the Burrell & Sons lock-out are taken from William Burrell: A Collector’s Life, by Martin Bellamy and Isobel MacDonald (Birlinn: 2022)