Museum in miniature

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An American’s Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon’s Legacy Royal Academy, until 27 January 2008 Supported by the Bank of New York Mellon

Paul Mellon (1907-99) was a prince among collectors, putting together the largest array of British art outside the United Kingdom. This he subsequently bequeathed to Yale, his alma mater, building a museum for its care, storage and display and an institute for its study. The Yale Center for British Art has shrewdly augmented the magnificent collection that Mellon donated and now has some 50,000 prints and drawings, 2,000 paintings, hundreds of sculptures and 35,000 rare books. This exhibition celebrates the centenary of Mellon’s birth and the 30th anniversary of the Yale Center with a carefully selected display of around 150 works, including many of the personal favourites of the great man. It’s an absolutely stunning exhibition, packed with works of the highest quality, and deserves several visits to appreciate fully its extraordinary range.

A great collector usually needs good advisers, and Mellon was lucky to meet early on the gifted writer and art historian Basil Taylor, who acted as his unpaid adviser from 1959 until 1968. Taylor gave so much time and expertise to his new role that a way of remunerating him had to be found. Thus it was that he became the salaried director of the newly inaugurated Paul Mellon Foundation. Taylor was an expert on Constable and Stubbs, among many other things, and was responsible for opening Mellon’s eyes to the glories of watercolours and drawings. Tragically, Taylor was a manic-depressive, and although brilliant was also (in the words of Brian Allen, current director of studies at the Paul Mellon Centre in London) a ‘fragile, self-destructive personality’. He resigned on the grounds of ill health in 1968 and committed suicide in 1975. Geoffrey Grigson, who thought very highly of his talents, described Taylor as ‘one of the most honest, most lovable persons I have ever known’. Although Mellon had other distinguished advisers, notably John Baskett, who has been instrumental in this exhibition, the debt to Basil Taylor–a largely forgotten figure these days–is very considerable. We have him to thank for much.

Mellon himself stressed the importance of enjoyment in art, and that is the principal ingredient in this undidactic exhibition. If the succession of great works of art is a little awe-inspiring, it is also intended to bring pleasure to the mind and to the heart and to the senses. This is apparent from the first room, devoted to sporting art, which illustrates Mellon’s love of horses and racing. (He owned Mill Reef, who won the Epsom Derby in 1971, and Sea Hero, who romped home in the 1993 Kentucky Derby.) Here are paintings by Stubbs and rather a fine James Ward of a celebrated stallion. The zebra so splendidly depicted by Stubbs doesn’t look quite as happy as it might, but his ‘Sleeping Leopard’ (done on earthenware for Wedgwood) is apparently more content. A group of his celebrated anatomical studies of the horse complete a powerful introduction to the show.

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A blaze of golden light has been spilling into this room from a great masterpiece hanging in the next gallery–Turner’s ‘Dort, or Dordrecht, the Dort Packet-boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’ (1818), on view in this country for the first time since it was bought by Mellon in 1966. It’s Turner’s most splendid tribute to Dutch painting, and to Aelbert Cuyp in particular, a detailed and convincing view of Dordrecht painted after only a day and a half’s observation of the port, and lit with unquenchable pale fire. Difficult to follow that, but this room is filled with genius. There’s an absolutely cracking Richard Wilson, ‘Rome from the Villa Madama’, serene in the face of the utmost provocation from another Turner hanging next to it, all cloud-wracked turbulence: ‘Staffa, Fingal’s Cave’ (1832). In this room, too, hangs Constable’s dramatic and somewhat desolate but marvellously painted ‘Hadleigh Castle’, done after his wife’s death.

To vary the pace a little, we move through into a section of watercolours and smaller studies, including a splendid grey and brown ‘Mountainous Landscape’ by Alexander Cozens, an evocative Gainsborough black chalk drawing of a wooded landscape and some magical Constable oil sketches. This room contains many modest or not-so-modest wonders: an airy watercolour of Venice by Turner, another of the Washburn river in Yorkshire (which reminds me of the sketchy yet structural quality of Cezanne’s watercolours), hung most effectively with a Cotman watercolour of trees and a detailed Constable graphite drawing, ‘Fulham Church from Across the River’. There are so many good things here I want to mention them all, but must content myself with drawing attention to the gorgeous Richard Wilson drawing of a plane tree and the rather striking ‘Donati’s Comet’ by William Turner of Oxford.

The third subject of the exhibition (following this general celebration of landscape) is ‘Topography and the Picturesque’, featuring such all-time favourites as Canaletto and Paul Sandby, whose extensive view of Wakefield Lodge in Northamptonshire opens out beautifully among more crowded compositions. To the right of Sandby is a limpid watercolour by one of my personal favourites, Francis Towne, and there’s a fine Girtin of Knaresborough. Among the earlier items are two scenic studies by Wenceslaus Hollar, one a panorama of Southwark (where I write this), looking towards Greenwich. Among the lesser-known artists here are Jonathan Skelton, Robert Hills and George Fennel Robson, the latter with a dark, atmospheric watercolour of a loch on the Isle of Skye.

Richard Parkes Bonington must be the hero of the fourth theme, ‘Travels Abroad’, with a lovely watercolour of shipping in an estuary and an oil of the Grand Canal in Venice. The watercolour is typically distinguished by fluency, exactness and lightness of touch, but the oil is also exquisite, the paint dragged vertically down the facades of the buildings as though they were weeping. There are sketchbooks and other splendours by John ‘Warwick’ Smith and Thomas Jones. A further section of Blake and other visionary artists extends the travels to those within the imagination and includes three amazing visionary landscapes by Samuel Palmer and (remembering Mellon’s other interests) a very lovely little Blake tempera painting of a horse.

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The final room of the show focuses on ‘Genre Scenes and Portraits’ and is rather dominated by the immensely dramatic but rather wooden portrait of John Gubbins Newton and his sister Mary (c.1833) by Robert Burnard. Beside such stiffness, Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait is foppishly limp, the costume of velvet and fur eminently strokeable. There is a marvellous Reynolds of the fascinating Mrs Abington, described by Duncan Robinson in the catalogue as ‘an attractive and talented actress playing the part of a feckless heroine’, and some classic Rowlandsons. (Mellon assembled a large holding of this artist.) There’s also a strikingly crepuscular Wright of Derby, a case of miniatures including Hilliard, Oliver and Cooper, a Hogarth and an ambitious Zoffany group portrait. Altogether a staggering collection.

It’s deeply appropriate that the RA should be hosting this hugely enjoyable show, as Paul Mellon was an Honorary Corresponding Member of the Academy, and the RA was a beneficiary of his will. And in many ways it’s a fitting tribute to a lifelong love affair with all things British, dating from his earliest childhood visits here (Mellon was actually baptised in St George’s Chapel at Windsor), and an enduring enthusiasm for art and books. The result is a substantial exhibition that one might have expected to be hung in the Academy’s main galleries instead of the overblown Baselitz. But it looks pretty good in the Sackler wing, and has the rich, dense feel of a museum in miniature, a remarkable collection of British art from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Yale is fortunate indeed to possess such treasures.