English Art, as well as being personally desirable, seemed to me long neglected or even abandoned, not only in this country but also in its homeland.
Paul Mellon, 1963
In April 1963, an exhibition of Paul Mellon’s collection of British art opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Mellon and Taylor together selected the works to be shown, and Taylor hung them and wrote the exhibition catalogue. Leslie Cheek, director of the museum, organised the opening, which was attended by the elite of American and English society.
The exhibition consisted of 324 paintings and 127 drawings with galleries respectively dedicated to landscape, men and society, animals and sport, and subject pictures. Taylor and Mellon did not choose any formal portraits, as they felt they were already well represented in American galleries. Exhibited works included Hogarth’s The Beggar’s Opera, Canaletto’s Lord Mayor’s Procession, Zoffany’s (1733–1810) he Drummond Family, Gainsborough’s Richard Lloyd and Sister, Constable’s Hadleigh Castle, and Stubbs’ Zebra. The exhibition relaunched British art, and Mellon claims in his memoirs that the achievement was due to the efforts and wisdom of Basil Taylor. The show travelled to the Royal Academy in December 1964 and the Yale University Art Gallery in the spring of 1965. While at the Royal Academy, the show enjoyed good attendance, although the English press wondered why a man of Mellon’s means would buy British art when he could afford French masterpieces. Mellon, however, felt that at last English art had begun to achieve the status it deserved in the form of a collection that would soon enter the public realm.
In July 1963 Mellon decided to choose an American repository for his British collection. His preference was for the collection to be housed in either Washington DC or at Yale University. He owned a house in Washington across the road from Sir Edwin Lutyens’s (1869–1944) British Embassy, but he worried that the building was not big enough and that the metropolitan location would face parking problems. The National Gallery was deemed inappropriate because of its own space issues; Mellon feared that his collection might be dispersed throughout the National Gallery’s own collection, diluting its impact and wholeness as a collection of British works.
I thought of the Center as an ideal institution for the study of British art and only incidentally of British manners and customs, of its history and mores.
Paul Mellon, 1992
Stainless steel exterior of the Yale Center for British Art Photo: Norman McGrath
Mellon at last decided to donate his collection to Yale University and with it founded the Center for British Art. The Center is housed in a modernist building designed by Louis Kahn (1901–1974); Mellon referred to its ‘elegant style and fine proportions’. His primary goal in establishing the Center was to offer young people and scholars an immediate experience of British art at an American university known for its British studies. As Mellon’s extraordinary collection illustrates, his favoured period produced a wealth of celebrated art, most of which significantly influenced contemporary and future artists, and all of which is intrinsically English.
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.