Paul Mellon: “The greatest Anglophile of them all”
A centennial celebration of the philanthropist who rejoiced in an “addiction to English life and English places”
By Jason Edward Kaufman
Philanthropy was Paul Mellon’s birthright. His father, the Pittsburgh banker and industrialist Andrew W. Mellon, founded the National Gallery of Art in 1937 with a gift to the nation of his art collection and funds to build a museum. Four decades later, his son increased the family legacy by establishing The Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven, donating to his alma mater the largest collection of British art outside the UK along with funds for a building by Louis Kahn – gifts today worth more than $1 billion.
“I can’t think of another private collector who individually amassed a larger collection of the history of visual culture of one nation,” says YCBA director Amy Meyers.
Although his father – secretary of the US Treasury (1921-31) and US Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (1931-32) — did not live to see the National Gallery of Art open in Washington in 1941, Paul Mellon picked up the torch, serving as founding president and remaining a trustee until 1985 (except for his wartime service in the US Army) and donating more than 1,000 works of art, mostly French and American paintings.
With his sister Ailsa Mellon Bruce he funded construction of the East Building designed by I.M. Pei that opened in 1978 on land that their father had earmarked for an expansion. “He never lost interest,” says NGA director Earl Powell III. “The gallery is so much him. Every time you turn around you are viewing or doing something he was responsible for,” he says. When Mellon died in 1999, he bequeathed the Gallery another 100 works of art and $75m, the largest cash gift in its history. Yet, characteristic of his family’s modesty, there is not one thing in the Gallery named for him.
Yale centenary celebrations
Paul Mellon was born a century ago this year, and institutions with which he was associated in the United States and England have lined up a full roster of exhibitions and events to mark the occasion. But, these celebrations can only hint at the magnitude of this singular man’s largesse and legacy. Leading the celebration is the Yale Centre for British Art, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this spring, and holds some 50,000 prints and drawings, 35,000 rare books and manuscripts, around 2,000 paintings and several hundred sculptures.
“Paul Mellon’s Legacy: a Passion for British Art” (18 April-29 July), co-organised with the Royal Academy in London where it travels in October, presents 250 works, ¬including paintings by Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Hogarth and nearly every major British artist since the 15th century. The works on paper include drawings and ¬watercolours by Hogarth, Rowlandson, Blake and Turner, and manuscripts, colour-plate books, maps and atlases, travel guides and drawing manuals. The idea is to reflect themes in British culture represented in Mellon’s comprehensive collections.
“He was left an enormous amount of money from his father and wanted to disburse it in a responsible fashion,” says John Baskett, Mellon’s friend and art adviser who assisted him in writing a 1992 autobiography, aptly titled Reflections in a silver spoon. Mellon gave American art to the Yale University Art Gallery, rare books to the university’s Beinecke Library (including the papers of Samuel Boswell), and in 1970 founded the Paul Mellon Centre in London, a research institute operated by Yale that awards fellowships and grants and publishes the majority of the world’s academic titles on British art.
Mellon’s philanthropy and his affection for British art and culture can be charted in parallel with his biography. Born in Pittsburgh in 1907, the third-generation descendant of a Presbyterian emigrant from Northern Ireland, his mother Nora McMullen (whom his father divorced in 1912) was English and the family summered near Windsor. It was there that Mellon recalled having “first developed a taste for the English countryside, for English houses, English rivers, English parks, English skies, English clouds…It is really in my blood,” he wrote. “It explains my addiction to English literature, to the English poets, to descriptions of English life, especially sporting and country life, and to the social and emotional aspects in English history.”
He was baptised in St George’s Chapel at Windsor and late in life funded its restoration. He attended the Connecticut prep school Choate where he would commission I.M. Pei to design an art centre. At Yale, in addition to the British Centre, he endowed two resident colleges and made other gifts that the university values collectively at more than $1 billion. (The identification number of his private Gulfstream jet was “1929Y”.) He also received an AB and MA from Clare College at Cambridge (1931, 1938), and later endowed lectureships at the college and gave or bequeathed artworks and more than $20m to the Fitzwilliam Museum.
After briefly working in his father’s businesses in Pittsburgh, he renounced the business world of his father and moved with his first wife Mary Conover Brown to a 4,500-acre farm in Upperville, Virginia which remained his primary residence. A skilled horseman, he became joint master of foxhounds of the Piedmont Hunt in Virginia and three times won the 100-Mile Ride at Hot Springs, South Dakota. The couple sojourned in Switzerland to study with the eminent psychiatrist Carl G. Jung, and in 1945 created the Bollingen Foundation (named after the village on Lake Zurich where Jung lived) to publish in English his collected works. Mary, an asthmatic, died in 1946 and two years later Mellon married Rachel Lambert Lloyd (“Bunny”), an heiress to the Warner-Lambert fortune (today part of Pfizer). She preferred French art, and with the advice of the scholar John Rewald they amassed a collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works by Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin, Pissarro and others – including the world’s largest group of Degas wax sculptures — most of which were donated to the National Gallery of Art.
Mellon’s interest in British sporting art brought him into the circle of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond where he would serve from 1938 to 1979 as a trustee, donating more than 2,000 works of British, French, American and Asian art, funding construction of a wing, then leaving $10.4m for maintenance of his collections which today form around ten percent of the museum’s holdings. He also gave art and money to the Tate and was a benefactor of the Royal Academy where he was an honorary member. And in 1969, he and his sister endowed the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which today has assets of nearly $5 billion and is among the largest foundations in the humanities. “I doubt if anyone in the 20th century equaled him in terms of international philanthropy in the arts,” says Ms Meyers.
“He spent much of his mature life amassing the largest collection of British art outside the UK, equivalent in scale and breadth and depth to the major collections in England,” says Ms Meyers. “His vision went beyond the Grand Manner portraits that were the taste of his father’s generation, to encompass British life in the broadest terms,” embracing manuscripts and maps from the Age of Discovery to the empire and its contact with Africa and the Americas, as well as art representing British life from the countryside and sporting art, to the life of the great country houses and their architectural development, city life and the history of British art itself. The Centre has masterpieces by Gainsborough, Turner, Constable, Hogarth and all of the major figures, but “it is an incredible mine for British history as well as British art history,” she says.
Mellon was already 53 when he started collecting seriously, advised initially by the British art historian Basil Taylor. “At that time British art was very underappreciated in England and there were many opportunities to get things,” recalls John Baskett, who served as Mellon’s private curator from 1961-63 as “pictures were pouring in.” The late J. Carter Brown, who became a friend of Mellon’s while director of the NGA, recounted that “Upperville, which some art dealers couldn’t even locate in any work of reference, became one of the best known addresses to U.S. Customs inspectors.”
Mr Baskett, who became a dealer in London and functioned as Mellon’s agent, notes that “On his periodic trips to London, the windows of the art dealers up and down Bond Street and St. James’s filled overnight with English pictures!” Mellon bought from Leonard Duke, Iolo Williams, Agnew’s, Colnaghi’s and Spink & Sons, and purchased a watercolour collection from a descendant of Thomas Girtin in 1970, and five years later the Thomas Lowinsky collection of figure drawings. When the YCBA opened in 1977, Mellon invited many English dealers and art historians to attend as his guests. Duncan Robinson, director of the Centre from 1977 to 1995, describes “the unselfish way [Mellon] would buy things on our recommendation that did not conform to his personal taste, but would be necessary to flesh out the collection.” Ms Meyers notes that his collecting of Stubbs, Wright of Derby and others who were not household names reinvigorated scholarly and collecting interest in the field, “contributing to the reexamination of ‘the long 18th century of England’ and the reestablishment of the importance of England in that period, particularly in art history.”
Though Mellon ardently loved British art, his greatest passion was country life, and more specifically “love of the horse, the well-kept, well-trained, beautifully moving horse, the horse as an object of art,” as he put it. In addition to his riding, he bred horses with English and American trainers, founding Rokeby Stables in Virginia which remains the only thoroughbred owner to have won Classic races on both sides of the Atlantic. Paul Mellon said that 100 years from now the only place his name will appear is in the stud books because he was the breeder of the European champion Mill Reef. Seven years after his death, there is little doubt that the great philanthropist and Anglophile is remembered for quite a lot more. “He was the most modest man, and this celebration would have embarrassed him,” says Ms Meyers, “but it is important to remember his example, to show people that this can be done.”
Jason Edward Kaufman
A version of this article appeared in The Art Newspaper, April 1, 2007 (Issue 179), pp. 42-43.