In his own words, Paul Mellon’s love of British art stemmed from his fascination with British life and history. He spent much of his early childhood in England and inherited his mother’s love of horses and country life. After his parents’ acrimonious and scandalous divorce, Paul lived with his father for a time in the Hyde Park Hotel. His governess would take him to Kensington Gardens, and the sight of suffragettes, soldiers and nannies tending to children with toy boats created romantic notions and influential memories of pre-First-World-War England that would later inform his art collecting.
Mellon obtained a degree in English Studies from Yale University and later read History at Cambridge, developing an interest in the period spanning the leadership of Robert Walpole (c. 1720) to the ascendancy of Queen Victoria in 1837. At Cambridge he also indulged his great sporting loves, rowing, horse-racing and fox-hunting. In 1936 while hunting in the Cotswolds, Mellon met a partner of the Manhattan gallery Knoedler & Company, who told him of an oil painting of a horse available for sale and urged him to call. On doing so, Mellon and his first wife Mary fell in love with Pumpkin with a Stable-lad by George Stubbs (1724–1806).
George Stubbs, Pumpkin with a Stable-lad, 1774. Oil on panel, 80 × 99.5 cm. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection. Photo by Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art.
We were both bowled over by the charming horse, the young boy in a cherry-colored jacket, and the beautiful landscape background.
Paul Mellon, 1992
Stubbs’s mastery of painting the horse derived from his comprehensive knowledge of anatomy, which he had studied at York Hospital, drawing dissections and illustrating medical journals. He later transferred his studies to a Lincolnshire farmhouse, where he spent eighteen months manipulating the corpses of horses into lifelike poses. He would slowly skin the animals and draw each progressive layer, working his way down to the skeleton. His subsequent ability to capture horses’ individual natures made him enormously popular with the aristocracy, particularly the members of the newly formed Jockey Club.
Paul and Mary Mellon bought the painting for $5,000. It was their first painting purchase and although Paul did not buy any British works again for another twenty-three years, the acquisition of Pumpkin was a turning point in his life as a collector. John Baskett, in the exhibition catalogue, suggests that Pumpkin was of particular importance to Mellon not just because it was the first English painting he purchased, but because in buying it he for the first time chose a work of his own taste and not that of his father’s. In his memoirs, Mellon claimed that this painting remained his favourite piece of British art throughout his life.
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.