Mellon’s love of the English landscape and light – coupled with his interest in English history and his enjoyment of traditional English pastimes such as hunting and racing – would both instigate and inform his decision to collect paintings, drawings, watercolours, books and prints of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English life.
English art is unique to and informed by its country of origin, much as the work of Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Raphael is distinctly Italian and Vermeer (1632–1675) patently Dutch. England’s people, history, physical terrain and climate have played major parts in creating the character of English art and have produced an emphasis on subject matter which celebrated the observations of man or nature as seen in portraiture and landscape.
As a Protestant country, England had little interest in the religious art commissioned in Europe by the Catholic Church. With their firm faith in the gods of reason and common sense, the English developed a taste not for the ornate and allegorical Baroque style of the continent, but for an art and architecture founded on truth in nature. In eighteenth-century England, wealthy landowners built serene and formal homes in the Palladian style. Their grounds, in contrast, were the polar opposite of the manicured parks of Versailles: English landscaped gardens were informal, a reflection of seventeenth-century French idealised landscape paintings, yet appreciative of the distinct national qualities of the English countryside.
Thomas Gainsborough, The Gravenor Family, c. 1754 Oil on canvas, 90.2 × 90.2 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection. Photo by Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) specialised in both portraiture and landscape painting. He was a contemporary and rival of the fashionable society portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), but his aims were very different. He loved painting landscape. The setting of The Gravenor Family typifies the precise and botanically accurate handling of his early works. Born in Suffolk, he moved to Ipswich early in his career and made a living painting portraits of local merchants and landowners often set in the Suffolk countryside. The Gravenor family is portrayed as a close-knit family unit, enclosed by intertwining trees and stalks of wheat, both symbolic of marital fidelity. The youngest daughter sits at her mother’s feet and leans in towards her, further suggesting a feeling of closeness and unity. Gainsborough’s approach is unsophisticated and direct and provides a showcase for his masterly brushwork. The clouds on the right side of the painting show evidence of Gainsborough’s loose oil technique in their hatching and almost sketchy linear brushstrokes.
As well as the tastes and intellectual preferences of the English people, the unpredictable British climate inherently informed the character of English art: stormy northern skies conjured an entirely different atmosphere and type of landscape than the bright, blue clarity of southern Europe. The two most renowned English landscape painters of the nineteenth century were John Constable (1776–1837) and JMW Turner (1775–1851). Both artists devoted their careers to elevating the status of landscape painting to that of history painting, at the time considered the highest form of art.
Tis a most delightfull country for a landscape painter. I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree.
John Constable, 1800
John Constable, 'Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames - Morning After a Stormy Night', 1829. Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 164.5 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection. Photo Yale Center for British Art/Richard Caspole
Constable had a deep love for the worked landscapes of his native Suffolk. To this day the Stour Valley and Dedham Vale are referred to as ‘Constable Country’. He called himself a ‘naturalist’ and spent a lifetime painting the landscapes and terrain that he knew intimately.
Constable looked to the Dutch landscape masters of the seventeenth century for inspiration and study; Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9?–1682) was a significant influence. Centuries of shared history and shipping routes and the similar climates and landscapes of East Anglia and the Netherlands created a natural rapport between the art and artists of the two regions. Hadleigh Castle’s flat, broad river beds and wide expanse of sky recall not only the flatlands of the Low Countries but also many of Ruisdael’s landscapes.
Hadleigh Castle, however, is uncharacteristic of the majority of Constable’s work, with its foreboding imagery of steep hills, rocky crags, turbulent skies and crumbling ruins. Constable tended to paint the domestic stability of Suffolk farmlands, but his allusions here to decay and ruin may well be references to mortality and death. His wife Maria had died of tuberculosis in November 1828, and Constable suffered her loss for the rest of his life. The diagonal shafts of light in the background not only lead the eye across the canvas but point to ships sailing out to sea, suggesting the Christian metaphor for death.
Constable revered Reynolds for having at last raised the status of British art, and he looked to the work of Gainsborough and Claude Lorrain (1600–1682) – whose work was long considered the ideal portrayal of nature – as the best models of painted landscape.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, An American's Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon's Legacy, An Introduction to the Exhibition for Teachers and Students, by Lindsay Rothwell.