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At a 1959 lunch in London, the art historian Basil Taylor convinced the 52-year-old American multimillionaire Paul Mellon that British art was “needlessly neglected, undervalued, and that somebody ought to do something about it”. By the time coffee arrived, Mellon later wrote, “It was agreed that I was going to collect British art and Basil would be my adviser”.

Mellon was already a great Anglophile. His love of the English countryside developed as a child, with memories of “flotillas of swans on the Thames, dappled tan cows, golden summer clouds and the grass green, green, green”. When he went to the University of Cambridge from Yale, he discovered fox-hunting and horseracing, passions that lasted a lifetime and spurred his interest in paintings by Stubbs.

Now this extended to embrace great figures such as Constable, Turner, Gainsborough and Hogarth, plus underappreciated artists such as Joseph Wright of Derby and Samuel Palmer. “I made my entrance into a subdued and down-at-heel British art market,” he recalled. “The British school was also a poor relation in the English museums: curators seemed to have turned their backs on British art. Prices were modest – sometimes absurdly so.” Mellon bought a beautiful Richard Dadd for £100, Stubbs’s charming picture of a leopard for £3,000, his great zebra for £20,000. As the London art dealer Sir Geoffrey Agnew remarked, “It took an American to make the English look again at their own paintings.”

Mellon’s accumulation of treasures, today the largest collection of British art outside the UK (2,000 paintings, 50,000 prints and drawings, 35,000 rare books and manuscripts and several hundred sculptures), became the Yale Center for British Art, which he set up between 1966 and 1977, first donating his collection, then funding a building to house it, gifts now worth more than $1bn.

Until July 29, an exhibition of 250 masterworks displayed throughout the building marks the centenary of Mellon’s birth and the centre’s 30th anniversary. A selection will be on display in London’s Royal Academy from October and there will be more than a dozen events elsewhere commemorating Mellon’s philanthropy.

Mellon was always very hands on with his collecting, even in his 80s, and his personal taste for tranquil, sunny, cheerful imagery is reflected in many oils that capture an idyllic English countryside. Constable was a particular favourite, and Mellon retained many small Constable sketches in his home until his death in 1999. He also liked small-scale, intimate works. “Size has nothing to do with quality,” he declared.

Once the YCBA was decided on, Mellon widened his horizons and chronological boundaries to include missing artists and schools from the 16th to the 20th century, plus significant works such as formal portraits by Reynolds and Van Dyck that he respected rather than loved. His aim was in part to encourage a reappraisal of the British tradition in art, but also to build a collection that was “not only for scholastic
purposes, but for pure enjoyment”. He insisted on free access: anyone can visit the study room to ask to see works not on display, no appointment required.

The exhibition, displayed on all three floors, presents every aspect of Mellon’s collecting. Visitors to Yale may be familiar with the paintings, but many of the watercolours and prints may surprise. There are outstanding works by William Blake and his contemporary Thomas Rowlandson, whose biting satires and comic depictions of London life are poles apart from the visionary Blakes. Quintessential English landscapes by watercolourists such as Richard Parkes Bonington and John Sell Cotman hang beside Turner’s limpid studies of sea and sky and Constable’s tender evocations of his native Suffolk. Also displayed are treasures from Mellon’s hoard of illustrated books.

As one takes in this rich show, it seems incredible that these works were ever neglected. That they are no longer is due in large part to Mellon’s vision and generosity.

Until July 29, tel +1 203 432 2800, www.yale.edu/ycba

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