None of the other nations of Europe has so abject an inferiority complex about its own aesthetic capabilities as England.
Nikolaus Pevsner, 1956
Despite the surge of influence, productivity and creativity of British art in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by the time Paul Mellon began to collect it in the 1950s, it had fallen largely out of favour with both the European and American art markets. Most of the art establishment favoured the work of the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Masters. From the 1890s, American collectors such as the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, the American railroad magnate Henry Huntington, and indeed Andrew Mellon, bought large-scale, formal English eighteenth-century portraits by artists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough and Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), but after the Great Depression and two World Wars, the market for British art had ground nearly to a halt.
The academic study of British art was also virtually non-existent in either country before Mellon began to collect it. With the exception of a few curators and museum directors in galleries specifically devoted to British art, public institutions in the years before the Second World War did little to promote it. In the early twentieth century, the commercial art market was in fact the force most responsible for any research into historic British painting. Dealers would hire librarians to produce written information about artworks available for sale. Paul Mellon refers to the art trade of the 1950s as ‘very unspoilt’; the supply of British art was high and its price and demand were low.
Mellon’s second wife Bunny and many of his acquaintances collected French Impressionist work and had little interest in British art, and Mellon felt he needed help in acquiring it. In 1959 he visited London and invited Basil Taylor of the Royal College of Art to lunch at Claridge’s. During the course of the meal, the two acknowledged British art’s state of neglect, admitted a mutual love of George Stubbs’s art, and agreed that Mellon would begin to collect British art with Taylor as his advisor. Taylor’s only stipulation was that he not receive any payment for his counsel. The only kind of gift he ever agreed to receive was a case of wine, preferably claret, at Christmas.
George Stubbs, Zebra, 1762–63. Oil on canvas, 103 x 127.5 cm. Photo Yale Center for British Art/Richard Caspole
Taylor set to work befriending London art dealers and soon discovered those with a love of British art. In 1960 he alerted Mellon to the sale of a Stubbs painting of a zebra (above), available for auction at Harrods. The painting was being sold rather inauspiciously amidst a jumble of used household furniture and goods, including washing machines. Unfortunately Taylor was not the only agent to hear about its impending sale, but after stiff competition from a number of interested buyers, an anonymous bidder – in fact Paul Mellon – eventually won the oil painting for the then enormous sum of £20,000.
One of my failings as a collector may be my lack of curiosity about the lives of the artists, their social and political backgrounds and their places in history. I am also little interested in their techniques, their materials, or their methods of working. I sometimes worry about it, but then I say to myself, “Why should I have to?”
Paul Mellon, 1992
Mellon later encountered another Stubbs in New York City. He took a strong dislike to it and did not buy it, but while at the gallery fell in love with and eventually bought at auction an abstract watercolour by the British modernist Ben Nicholson (1894–1982). The episode illustrates Mellon’s method of collecting, which by his own admission was based on instinct rather than intellect. His lack of interest in an artist’s background, method or social context in fact echoes post-modern critical theory, as in the writings of French philosopher Roland Barthes (1915–1980), who argues in Death of the Author that the viewer, rather than the artist, is the author of an artwork, as the artist’s intentions can never fully be known. Mellon would not, however, have considered himself a critical theorist. He chose works that stirred an emotional response in him:
When I buy a painting, some feature about it may remind me consciously or unconsciously of some past event, thought, feeling, moment of pleasure or even of sadness. It might just be a fortuitous combination of colors, or a certain calmness, or a beautiful sense of proportion. In the case of a portrait, perhaps it is the sitter’s character, air of intelligence, or hint of humor. Would I like her or him? It seems to me that art makes one feel the essence of something, turning the ordinary, everyday object or scene into a universal one. Like poetry for Wordsworth, it is ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’.
In Basil Taylor, Mellon had found an advisor who could not only recommend works of the highest quality, but who shared a love and affection for British art similar to his own.
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.