RA Magazine Autumn 2007
Issue Number: 96
Paul Mellon’s collection of masterpieces by Gainsborough, Stubbs, Constable, Turner and others goes on display at the Royal Academy this autumn to celebrate the centenary of his birth. Here, Giles Waterfield looks at the man behind the gentleman and his love affair with British art
JMW Turner, 'Dort, or Dordrecht, the Dort Packet-boat from Rotterdam Becalmed', 1818. Oil on canvas, 157.5 x 233 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection. Photo Yale Center for British Art/Richard Caspole
One of the great collectors of the twentieth century, Paul Mellon belonged to the Medici tradition: a man of enormous wealth, buying for the whole of a long adulthood. Where he differed from the Medici was that he did not engage in personal display. He supported numerous museums and created a centre for his own collection of British art, yet he was unusual among museum founders in not stamping the place with his own name: as he recognised, institutions named after their founder have problems finding support from anyone else.
The Yale Center for British Art, which opened to the public in 1977, celebrates primarily British art, and the only painting of the donor on public view, by William F. Draper, is shown discreetly at the library door. A deeply serious philanthropist, Mellon supported the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where he and his sister built the East Wing, and in this country, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Tate Gallery and the Royal Academy.
The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art was founded in London as a sister institution to the Yale Center in 1970, and it has become, along with Tate Britain, the world’s most active champion of British art.
Mellon embodied the old-fashioned notion of the gentleman. For a man of his generation (he was born in 1907) the idea meant a great deal. Restraint, good manners based on consideration for others, avoidance of self-promotion; these were all characteristics that he exemplified. Other, more complex, qualities of the gentleman – the concealment of emotion, and an unstated reliance on wealth acquired by someone else – also fell to him.
‘Mr Mellon’, as he is widely known in New Haven and particularly at the Yale Center for British Art, where his genial shadow is subtly omnipresent eight years after his death, enjoyed the understated elegance and authority of an aristocrat. I only met him once, at the opening of an exhibition of paintings from the Dulwich Picture Gallery at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where he was the Chairman of Trustees. He made a charming speech, ending in a sweet little pun: ‘There’s nothing dull about Dulwich’. What was not evident was that beneath this façade of confidence stood a complex and sensitive man, a member of a plutocratic but complicated family, who had suffered a troubled childhood and was a regular visitor to his analyst.
Paul Mellon with the portrait bust of Thomas, 1st Baron Dartrey, by Joseph Wilton. Photo William B. Carter, Yale Department of Public Information.
The equanimity did not come easily. Mellon knew England from his childhood. He was christened in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and spent summers by the Thames, as his mother was English. When he became a student at Cambridge, in 1929, he spent less time on his academic studies than on learning about privileged English society and hunting, an enthusiasm that lasted all his life. As a young man, he bought French painting extensively, a more traditional field of interest than English art for the early twentieth-century American collector: many of his most important French paintings were given to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Though the art dealer Joseph Duveen had persuaded newly rich American collectors to acquire British eighteenth-century and Regency portraits for enormous sums of money, such large depictions of the wealthy did not interest Mellon. His collection is remarkable for its general avoidance of grand full lengths; its character is domestic. Typical examples of such works are Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs Abington as Miss Prue in William Congreve’s “Love for Love”, 1771, and Thomas Gainsborough’s The Gravenor Family, c. 1754, both of which are on show at the RA.
Mellon bought his first British painting, Pumpkin with a Stable-lad, 1774, a racehorse by George Stubbs, in 1936, but it was only in the 1960s that he seriously set about acquiring such works, collaborating with the distinguished art historian and Stubbs expert Basil Taylor (commemorated in this exhibition with a bust of Alexander Pope by Louis-François Roubiliac, bought in his honour). Taylor, like Mellon, believed that British art was ‘long neglected and even abandoned’ and inaccurately associated with aristocratic and frivolous images.
George Stubbs, Zebra, 1762–63. Oil on canvas, 103 x 127.5 cm. Photo Yale Center for British Art/Richard Caspole
The result of their partnership was a collection with two strands. On the one hand, Mellon’s pictures represented his personal interests. These focused on hunting scenes and equestrian paintings, particularly works by Stubbs and Ben Marshall, but also paintings by Alfred Munnings, whose fine portrait of Mellon on horseback, 1933, is on display. He was especially fond of rural landscapes, such as John Constable’s East Bergholt Church, 1809 (see page 122), satirical works by Thomas Rowlandson, conversation pieces and oil sketches, together with unusual works that personally appealed to him.
The strongest memory of my first visit to the Yale Center for British Art is seeing the Constable oil studies of cloudy skies in the ideal setting of a gallery that rejoices in its relationship with the light and air outside. On the other hand, the collection was intended by Taylor to maintain a comprehensive character: it became a representative assembly of British art from the early eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century.
Highlights of the show include Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Academy by Lamplight, c.1768–69, an outstanding set of images in various media by William Blake, watercolours by John Sell Cotman and Francis Towne, and JMW Turner’s luminous marine painting Dort, or Dordrecht, the Dort Packet-boat From Rotterdam Becalmed, 1818 (top of page), oil sketches by Constable and Rowlandson’s hilarious The Exhibition Stare-case, Somerset House, c. 1800, which portrays visitors tumbling down the stairs of the Royal Academy.
This mixture of the personal and the encyclopaedic gives the collection a quality which is hardly matched by other collections of British art in the United States or even in Britain itself – probably the other most notable American collection of British art, enshrined at the Huntingdon Library in California, leans towards the grand-portrait tradition. Apart from Tate Britain, it is hard to think of any collection in the world where, since the Second World War, historic British painting has been systematically assembled on such a scale.
The centenary of Mellon’s birth was celebrated earlier this year with an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art of some of his finest paintings, drawings, rare books and manuscripts. It was curated by Brian Allen, Director of the Paul Mellon Centre in London, John Baskett, the art dealer who often guided Mellon in his collecting, and MaryAnne Stevens of the Royal Academy, in collaboration with the curators of the Yale Center.
The version on show this autumn at the RA gives a fine impression of the freshness and subtlety of the collection of paintings, works on paper, rare books and manuscripts. It is outstanding in its representation of Gainsborough, Blake, Stubbs, Turner, Constable and Palmer, as well as artists such as Munnings, of whom Mellon was extremely fond, though they perhaps exert a more specialist appeal.
It is not only big names that find a place in a collection where the presiding genius bought from a sense of pleasure rather than duty. The outstanding Portrait of John Gubbins Newton and His Sister, Mary Newton, c. 1833, hardly distinguished people, which was recently reattributed to the little-known Robert Burnard, a British emigrant to Australia, appears to be his only known work. Remarkable, as Judy Egerton has summed up, for its ‘clarity, strong lines, and quasi-heroic composition’, it might not have found its way into a more cautious collection.
Another idiosyncratic work is Le Moyne’s watercolour miniature A Young Daughter of the Picts, c. 1585. Painted around the time of the Virginia Colony expedition, such illustrations were meant to remind viewers that Britain was once populated by noble savages similar to those in the Americas. This painting depicts an imaginary Pictish woman tattooed with native British botanical species.
Altogether, the show offers an individual view of British art. Mellon did not much like Victorian art, particularly not the Pre-Raphaelites. Though some interesting works in this vein (with an emphasis on social documentation) were acquired in his lifetime, they were generally bought by staff at the Yale Center for British Art. In the twentieth century field, Mellon acquired works by the Camden Town Group and Gwen John, whose contemplative anguish evidently appealed, as well as Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson.
Yet for the most part British art of the late twentieth century was not to his taste. Post-war British art is represented by only a few works, and the rules that govern the trust prevent the purchase of works of art after 1850 from the Mellon endowment. As time passes the collection risks becoming an embodiment of late twentieth century taste, which is fascinating for the specialist but limiting for the public. On the other hand, the Yale Center for British Art is empowered to raise acquisition funds from elsewhere, and a challenge it will face is whether to remain a monument to Mellon or to expand into new fields of activity.
Elisabeth Fairman, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Yale Center, describes Mellon as ‘the greatest book collector of the twentieth century’. Some of the most exciting displays in this exhibition are the books and manuscripts, though only a tiny fraction of the 35,000 items can be shown. The collection is extraordinarily rich, and normally it can only be appreciated by those who penetrate the welcoming study room. Arranged in the fields that attracted Mellon (early maps, sport, the natural world, artists and art teaching) the atmosphere created by these books is of a gentle pastoral world, scarcely disturbed by the Industrial Revolution. This was the England Mellon recognised and preferred.
The Royal Academy has always been a champion of British art, though quite often, in the past, its championship has arguably been misdirected. In 1964–65, when understanding of historic British art was at a low point, it helped to present the case for reassessment by mounting ‘Painting in England 1700–1850’, drawn from Mellon’s rapidly expanding collection, and an affirmation of faith in the quality of such art.
Though 40 years later the reputation of historic British art has risen, the sort of pictures that Mellon favoured are, to a great extent, out of fashion, just like the country houses for which many of them were painted. The idea of a rural, mono-cultural England is not to the taste of many people today, whether academics or critics, or younger exhibition visitors. This show has the ability to persuade a broader public that what superficially appears a highly traditional form of art is more than that: it is a radical, exploratory art reflecting a society in the throes of social, political and economic change, in which for the first time in England the visual arts played a role as both a record and a means of intellectual exploration.
Read more about this exhibition
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