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Book reveals secret life of Sir William Burrell's daughter

A NEW book is set to lift the lid on the intriguing secret life of the daughter of renowned Scottish art collector and philanthropist Sir William Burrell.

ROLE: Author Sue Stephen was Marion's god-daughter, giving her access to the story of one of the most famous families in Scottish history. Picture: Martin Shields.
ROLE: Author Sue Stephen was Marion's god-daughter, giving her access to the story of one of the most famous families in Scottish history. Picture: Martin Shields.

The Collector's Daughter: The Untold Burrell Story, by Sue Stephen, reveals the depth of Marion's troubled relationship with her parents and the bitter estrangement that meant she would never inherit her father's treasures.

Mrs Stephen, from Balfron, Stirlingshire, is the god-daughter of Marion and her family's close friendship with the Burrells, spanning four generations, meant she had privileged access to information to which only a scarce few were privy.

While much of the life of Sir William, who made his fortune in shipping and bequeathed his 9000-strong art collection to the City of Glasgow in 1944, remains shrouded in mystery, even less is known of Marion.

According to Mrs Stephen, 79, Sir William had high expectations for his only daughter, having her schooled by a French governesses from an early age.

"She was tremendously isolated," she said. "When Marion was five they got rid of her nice, cosy nanny and she was given a French governess. She didn't go to the day school down the road in Kelvinside [Glasgow] where her cousins went to, she was closeted in the nursery with her governess. During that time she was only allowed to speak French."

It was Sir William's wish Marion marry into the aristocracy but he never deemed any suitors good enough.

A furious Marion only learned that her father had called off her betrothal to one young man when she read a notice in the newspaper. After three broken engagements, she vowed never to marry.

Her relationship with her mother, meanwhile, grew increasingly strained as Constance Burrell seemingly never quite forgave her daughter for a traumatic labour.

"A lot of the trouble came from her mother," said Mrs Stephen. "Constance suffered from poor health and eventually became mentally ill. Willie always protected and cosseted her - he couldn't do enough for his wife.

"As time went on she played on that. She became very jealous of Marion and influenced Willie more and more to mistreat their daughter. Marion had the most miserable time."

It was a suffocating childhood and early adult life, which led to Marion carving out a starkly different path.

She was a nurse during the Second World War, later working her passage to South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. After Marion finally ran away at 47, her father cut her off financially and she was forced to rely on the kindness of friends and relatives to get by.

The memoir paints a portrait of a spirited and strong-willed young woman with a sense of fun and insatiable curiosity for the world around her.

"Marion could be very domineering, infuriating sometimes, but she was a tremendously interesting person," said Mrs Stephen. "If there was something she didn't know about she'd start asking questions like mad until she did.

"She was gregarious. She would strike up a conversation with absolutely anyone and get on like a house on fire. She had a very difficult life and I think because of that she sympathised with other people's troubles."

The book reveals Marion's clandestine love affairs including with Major Sholto Douglas, a contemporary of her father's, and Spanish diplomat Jose Luis Plaza.

Marion - who changed her name to Silvia aged 75 - was 89 when she died in 1992. Mrs Stephen, whose husband Sandy is from the famed Alexander Stephen shipbuilding family, said she had grown very fond of Sir William in writing the book and it was not her intention to criticise him.

"I knew Marion would hate it if I maligned her father because she never actually did that herself," she said.

"He was a svengali in a way. No matter how badly he treated her - and she didn't forgive him for that - she always respected and admired him.

"No one was more proud of the Burrell Collection than she was."

Collector's Daughter: The Untold Burrell Story is published by Glasgow Museums, priced £9.99.

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