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This year sees the centenary of the birth of Paul Mellon, heir to one of the greatest banking fortunes of America and, by the time of his death in 1999, one of Britain’s more remarkable benefactors, as this richly concentrated summary of his career as a collector of British art shows.

Philanthropy was in the blood, perhaps, and from his father, Andrew Mellon – a somewhat forbidding figure, whose taste was for the Old Masters – he may also have picked up the collecting virus. From his mother, Nora McMullen, came his love of horses, hunting and the English countryside. He completed his education at Cambridge, rode to hounds with the Fitzwilliams, and was seconded to the British Special Operations Executive during the second world war.

His particular interest in the British School of painting took root in 1936, with his first independent purchase: a George Stubbs of 1774, of a champion thoroughbred, “Lord Foley’s Pumpkin, by Match’em out of Old Squirt”.

But then, for 20 years, although active in other fields, notably the French impressionists, he bought nothing else of that kind. Only in the late 1950s did that interest rekindle, and again it was the horse that did the trick.

He was asked to chair an Anglo-American committee for a big exhibition on “Sport and the Horse”, with a catalogue by Basil Taylor, the English art historian. Mellon realised that the English art they were celebrating was critically neglected, undervalued and available, and he re-entered the fray. Again, in 1960, it was a Stubbs he bought, the remarkable “Zebra” of 1763, knocked down at a Harrods auction for £20,000.

After that, with Taylor’s initial help and thereafter that of John Baskett, a young independent London dealer, the most significant collection of British art outside this country and the most important centre for its specialised study anywhere in the world came into being with astonishing speed. The definition of “British” was pretty loose, embracing British artists working abroad and foreigners here, and, indeed, anything British by association – although the absence of the great Scots might suggest “English” as a more accurate label.

A public exhibition of 451 paintings from the collection came to the Royal Academy in 1964, to an astonished and delighted critical reception. It is hard to remember now that barely 50 years ago the British School was conventionally dismissed as
second-rate, hardly worth noticing.

Mellon decided, in 1966, to give the collection to his old university, Yale. The initial idea was for a museum that would take the collection as it grew, rather than for a teaching institution, but slowly the latter principle took hold and in 1977 the Yale Center for British Art was opened, to complement the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art already established in London.

The Mellon Collection now stands at some 2,000 paintings, 50,000 prints and drawings, several hundred sculptures and 35,000 rare books and manuscripts. Of these, the Royal Academy shows a handful of books, 78 drawings or watercolours, and 35 superb paintings.

The works date from Elizabethan to mid-Victorian times, and are arranged in groups to suggest the scope of Mellon’s interests and taste: sporting art, landscape, travel, the picturesque, Blake, genre, portrait.

Here are such treats as Stubbs’s “Pumpkin” and “Zebra”; Turner’s stupendous watercolour of “The Sea of Ice” at Chamonix; Constable’s “Hadleigh Castle”; a wonderful Zoffany group portrait of the Drummond family; Canaletto looking along the Thames to the half-built Westminster Bridge; Paul Sandby deep in the gorge below Roslin Castle; Caxton’s “Chaucer” and “Mirror of the World”; Samuel Palmer, young and mystical; the Helmingham Herbal of about 1500; Walton; Wheatley; Devis; Lawrence; Reynolds’ wistful “Miss Prue”; Cotman; Bonington; and so much else. And to send one away with a broad grin is wonderful Rowlandson, his beauties tumbling for ever down the stairs at Somerset House, revealing all.

‘An American’s Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon’s Legacy’, Royal Academy, London W1, to January 27: supported by The Bank of New York Mellon.
Tel 20 7300 8000

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