Mellon ’29 remembered for his love of British art

When Paul Mellon ’29 was deciding where to attend college in 1925, one package in the mail made all the difference.

Princeton, one of his two top choices, sent Mellon an ominous black book detailing its 10 p.m. curfews and endless other restrictions.

Curator of Prints and Drawings Scott Wilcox leads visitors through “Paul Mellon’s Legacy: A Passion for British Art” on April 16 at the Yale Center for British Art.
Matt Lucas
Curator of Prints and Drawings Scott Wilcox leads visitors through “Paul Mellon’s Legacy: A Passion for British Art” on April 16 at the Yale Center for British Art.

“He thought, ‘the hell with that,’ and he got in touch with Yale,” said John Baskett, Paul Mellon’s longtime friend and art adviser who helped Mellon write his autobiography.

Yale was certainly lucky to have him. The Yale Center for British Art and other institutions worldwide are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Paul Mellon’s birth and the 30th anniversary of the Center this year with numerous programs and exhibitions in New Haven and around the world. “Paul Mellon’s Legacy: A Passion for British Art,” a major exhibition showcasing the collections of one of the greatest cultural philanthropists of the 20th century, opened Wednesday at the Center and will travel to the Royal Academy of Arts in London this fall.

By the time Mellon died in 1999, he had left his vast collections of British art — the largest outside of the United Kingdom — to Yale in the Center he founded and built.

Although Mellon’s family had no history at the University, Mellon ended up being one of the most generous donors in the University’s history. His gifts to Yale are almost countless: He founded the Yale Center for British Art, endowed lectureships, fellowships and academic programs, restored Connecticut Hall, and built Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges, to name a few. But the effects of his particular interest in and support for British art are felt far beyond the confines of New Haven. In fact, many credit Mellon with transforming the field of British art history — and all this from a man who, Baskett said, cared more about his horses than about his art collection.

A lifelong love of British art

Born in 1907, Paul Mellon was the son of Andrew Mellon, one of the wealthiest men of his day. Every penny of Paul Mellon’s own fortune was inherited, Baskett said, from his father’s main moneymaking industries: aluminum, Gulf Oil, copper, Pullman cars and construction. Paul Mellon’s mother, Nora McMullen, was English, and Paul Mellon spent much of his life overseas, beginning his travels at the age of six months.

At Yale, Mellon became close friends with future University president Whitney Griswold and worked on the staff of the News, a decision he counted among one of his biggest Yale regrets, he wrote in his autobiography, “Reflections in a Silver Spoon.” Mellon struggled with depression throughout his youth and underwent successful treatment at Yale shortly after graduating, history professor emeritus Gaddis Smith said, an experience which led him to leave a significant amount of money to the University’s mental health programs.

Mellon attended Clare College in Cambridge for two years after leaving Yale, at which time he became particularly interested in horses. It was likely this love of horses that made the 18th-century British painter George Stubbs one of Mellon’s favorite artists. Stubbs’ “Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad,” part of the Mellon exhibition on view now at the British Art Center, was Mellon’s first art purchase in 1936.

Although Mellon did not start seriously collecting until 1959, Baskett said, by about 1963, he had one of the most important collections of British art anywhere in the world, and he knew he wanted to leave it to the public in some way. When Mellon founded the Yale Center for British Art in 1966, which remains the largest collection of British art outside of the United Kingdom, he did so with a view that the primary purposes of the Center were to promote the study of British art and simply to allow people to enjoy the aesthetics of the art on view.

“My objective in giving these collections to Yale was largely to give young men and women an opportunity to enjoy them at a period in their lives before age and familiarity dulled the immediacy of their visual impact,” Mellon wrote in his autobiography. “I would have been saddened if the only purpose the pictures were going to serve was to replace lecture slides.”

While many Elis admittedly have never set foot in the Center, for a few of those who do, Mellon’s donation has affected them in ways beyond academics.

Andrew Lee ’09, coordinator of the Center’s student guide program, said his involvement with the program was a happy accident, as he forgot to attend the Yale University Art Gallery’s meeting for a similar program. Today, he spends several hours a week at the Center and said he loves the sense of community he feels with other gallery guides, administrators and curators.

“I’m always dropping in,” Lee said. “It’s immeasurable, really. I came in intending to be an architecture major, but basically as a result of my experiences at the British Art Center I’ve changed my major to art history. It’s been a really challenging experience; it’s made me question a lot of what I want to be doing with myself.”

And this, according to friends of Mellon, is just what the philanthropist intended to do.

“[Mellon] told me that he thought if a student visited this gallery and enjoyed the experience, the fact that it changed just one life, that in a sense would have justified what he had done,” Baskett said. “He wasn’t part bothered about masses of people wandering past paintings and going on to the next one and forgetting the experience overnight. He was interested in the transforming experience.”

But Mellon’s gifts have, in fact, changed far more than one student’s life. Even though Mellon may not have been a great academic himself, many say his support of scholarship at Yale and beyond revitalized the field of British art.

Support for a lagging academic field

Brian Allen, director of London’s Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, said the discipline of art history developed much more slowly in England than it did in America. A large number of art scholars were based in Germany, he said, and many of them emigrated to America when they fled the Nazis in the 1930s, thus helping to professionalize the discipline of art history in the United States. But the study of British art, Allen said, was still in the hands of “gentleman amateur scholars.”

“British art was still trapped very much in that particular way of proceeding which was largely based on connoisseurship, where people were interested in the stylistic development and who the picture was by, rather than any kind of intellectual interpretation of it, which had been more a part of the Germanic tradition,” Allen said. “So in the 1960s when Paul Mellon began to support the study of British art, I think the study of British art was in a pretty parochial state.”

Since its founding in 1970, the Paul Mellon Centre has collaborated with the Yale University Press to publish a large number of catalogues raisonnes — volumes that detail the work of a single artist over his entire career — for British artists on whom little scholarly work had existed before, Allen said. Because of the huge production costs associated with these tomes, Mellon’s endowment of the Paul Mellon Centre was key in making these publications possible. Appropriately, the Paul Mellon Centre will publish a book on the complete works of Stubbs this year.

Yale Center for British Art Director Amy Meyers said many British artists such as Stubbs were out of fashion in the 20th century, but that Mellon’s interest in the artist and his support for research about him brought Stubbs both public and scholarly attention.

“In terms of academic research, there were extremely important opportunities that Mr. Mellon presented and that began to turn scholars’ attention to this work,” Meyers said. “There was the ability to publish, because of the monetary support that he offered; there was the ability to study, because of the fellowships that he made available, and which directed attention towards the field in truly significant ways. … Sometimes it is simply opportunity that turns someone’s attention to a specific subject area, and in this case certainly Mr. Mellon presented that.”

Kahn and Mellon: Stepping across Chapel Street

Another opportunity Mellon presented in 1966 was architectural: He and Yale needed to find someone to build a home for his collections. At the time, the Center represented the University’s first foray across Chapel Street, said Jules Prown, emeritus professor of the history of art and the first director of the Center.

“For Yale to jump across Chapel Street was sending a kind of signal that in the climate of that time was not particularly well accepted,” Prown said.

The University removed taxable property from the city by building on the site, and many believed a large building would also move stores and other commercial amenities farther away from students. As a result, Prown and other administrators decided to incorporate shops on the museum’s ground level, which he sees as a successful choice.

“Chapel Street is really flourishing as a direct result of that,” Prown said.

The Center itself was the last major commission of the renowned 20th-century modernist architect Louis Kahn. Kahn’s first major project, located across the street from the Center, was a wing of the Yale University Art Gallery, which was restored over the past three years and reopened last December.

Prown said the main factor in his choice of Kahn was the architect’s way of dealing with light.

“What he wanted was the ability on a sunny day to view the works of art by daylight and not by artificial light, and that went against prevailing museum architectural theory at the time, which favored the kind of environment where whoever was doing the installation would have control over the light and would put it where you wanted it,” Prown said. “In my experience the works looked their best in those galleries that had skylights, courtyards, side windows and so on, and Kahn was a master of dealing with daylight.”

The Center received the American Institute of Architects’ 25 Year Award in 2005.

A humble philanthropist

But professors emphasize that the Center’s presence on campus is important for more than its architectural renown. Directed Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Jane Levin said the Center’s important holdings of Blake watercolors give her students in Directed Studies — a program Mellon funded in the 1950s — a unique opportunity to see in person the works they study in class.

“It’s an incredibly extraordinary experience, because we read the ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ in this facsimile edition, but then we get to go to the British Art Center and see the original — engraved and printed and hand colored by Blake,” Levin said. “We have to read Blake just for this opportunity for people to see the original. It’s extraordinary.”

The rare Blake engravings form just a tiny part of Mellon’s gifts to the University, which University President Richard Levin said are worth more than $1 billion. Yet notably absent on most of the programs he funded and buildings he constructed is his name.

“Mr. Mellon almost never allowed his name to be attached to anything that he supported,” Meyers said. “His modesty and his humility about his own contributions were what dignified his efforts in such a special way. He serves as an extraordinary model for how one can really make a huge difference in the promotion and support of cultural endeavors internationally, and Yale should be so proud that he is a graduate of this college and that he has served as such an important benefactor.”

Mellon’s last gift to Yale, which he left in his will, was $90 million and 130 works of art.

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