About

History

The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art was founded in 1970 through a generous grant from Paul Mellon, KBE to Yale University. We are the sister institution to the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

The Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art

Although in his youth Paul Mellon briefly contemplated an academic career his intellectual bent was always towards the intuitive rather than the analytical when it came to looking at works of art. ‘One of my failings as a collector may be my lack of curiosity about the lives of the artists, their social and political backgrounds, and their places in history. I am also little interested in their techniques, their materials, or their methods of working. I sometimes worry about it, but then I say to myself, “Why should I have to?”’ These words by Paul Mellon from his autobiography might seem somewhat at odds with his extraordinary legacy but they do nothing if not emphasise that his prime interest was always in the work of art itself. Although, objectively, and as a result of his education at Yale and Cambridge, Paul Mellon always understood the significance of scholarship, its results usually left him unmoved. ‘I find most critical writing, most statements about art, to be totally misleading’ he wrote. ‘Critical analysis of art is quite different from literary criticism. You can translate Sanskrit into English and analyse the meaning, but when you try to sum up the meaning of [Raphael's] “Alba Madonna” or Cezanne's “Boy in a Red Waistcoat” in words, it all seems to go off the rails.’

Paul Mellon

William B. Carter, Paul Mellon, with portrait bust by Joseph Wilton of Thomas, 1st Baron Dartrey

Digital image courtesy of Yale Department of Public Information

It is worth remembering that scholarship in the history of British art was woefully underdeveloped during Paul Mellon's formative years and before he began to collect British art seriously at the end of the 1950s. Unlike today, in pre-Second World War England the Tate Gallery played virtually no role in promoting the study of British art. The situation was barely better at the National Gallery because, according to Ellis Waterhouse, its Director Sir Augustus Daniel (1866 - 1950) ‘actually disliked British painting of the eighteenth century.’ The curator at the National Gallery who specialised in British art, C.H.Collins Baker (1880 - 1959) was soon to depart for the Huntington Library in California and it fell to his young assistant, Ellis Waterhouse (1905-1985), to make British painting one of his areas of expertise at the National Gallery before he left to become Librarian of the British School at Rome in 1933. At the National Portrait Gallery its Director Henry Hake (1892-1951) and colleagues Henry Isherwood Kay (1893 - 1938) and C.K.Adams (1899 - 1971) conducted research on rather more specialist lines but before the outbreak of war that was about it as far as contributions from the official art establishment in Britain were concerned.

Much of what was written about British art in the first decades of the twentieth century was, in fact, penned by the ‘librarians’ of London's leading art dealers. Usually in the form of elaborate pamphlets produced by the dealers about individual works for sale, these now rather rare and often sumptuous publications are invariably anonymous but were undoubtedly sometimes written by scholars who were cautious about protecting their anonymity. It was a curious fact that since the beginning of the twentieth century the study of historic British painting had been almost entirely in the hands of the art trade.

The establishment of the Courtauld Institute in London in 1932, under the directorship of W.G. Constable (1887 - 1976), was undoubtedly a significant moment since a number of the first PhD theses to emerge from this new body were on English eighteenth-century painters, although they remained unpublished. Another important landmark at this date was the series of exhibitions held at the London house in Park Lane of Sir Philip Sassoon (1888 - 1939), Chairman of the National Gallery's Trustees, in aid of the Royal Northern Hospital. The catalogues of the exhibitions on Gainsborough in 1936 and Reynolds in 1937, both written by Ellis Waterhouse, were important milestones in the study of eighteenth-century British painting and it might be argued that the interest in painters like Devis, Zoffany and Wheatley resulted from the first of these loan exhibitions, English Conversation Pieces, held in 1930.

Paul Mellon had purchased a few British sporting pictures before the 1950s but most of his collecting activity had been confined to acquiring sporting and colour plate books, such as the magnificent Abbey collection purchased between 1952 and 1955. Although it seems quite probable, we do not really know if on his regular visits to England in the 1950s Paul Mellon ever saw the winter exhibitions at the Royal Academy, such as those devoted to the institution's first hundred years held in the winter of 1951-52 or the exhibition of British portraits shown in the winter of 1956-57.

It was a chance meeting between the English art historian Basil Taylor (1922 - 1975) and Paul Mellon in the spring of 1959 that led to the establishment of the Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art. Their joint interest in Stubbs and sporting art in general was the happiest of coincidences for it set in train a sequence of events that was to have a profound bearing on the creation of opportunities for new scholarship in the history of British art. Basil Taylor soon became Paul Mellon's adviser as he began to build up his collection of British art. Soon afterwards, it came to Paul Mellon's attention that a lengthy and comprehensive manuscript on the history of watercolour painting in Britain by the deceased former Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Martin Hardie (1875 - 1952), remained unpublished, essentially because the cost of editing and publication were prohibitive to any British publisher. Since Paul Mellon had just purchased Martin Hardie's own fine collection of English watercolours he perhaps felt some sense of responsibility towards this project. After lengthy discussions with his friend Herbert Read, who was also a director of the publisher Routledge & Kegan Paul, he not only decided to underwrite the revision of Hardie's manuscript, which eventually appeared in three volumes published by Routledge between 1966 and 1968, but also asked Basil Taylor to draw to his attention any other writings on British art that faced the same predicament. From this almost accidental beginning, late in 1961, grew the concept of establishing a publishing venture that, to use Paul Mellon's own words, ‘would promote a wider knowledge and understanding of British art’. A non-profit Charitable Trust was then established with ‘independent self-governing British status and with its own board of trustees, to publish a series to be entitled “Studies in British Art”.’ This new project started under the wing of another of Paul Mellon's charitable trusts, the Bollingen Foundation, which he had established with his first wife Mary in December 1945 as the Bollingen Foundation for British Art and was officially incorporated as a Company Limited by Guarantee on 13th June 1963 . Shortly after, having experienced complications operating as a Limited Company, it was reformed as a Trust and on 4th May 1964 received Charitable Status. Financial control was transferred to another Mellon charitable trust, the Old Dominion Foundation, which Paul Mellon had established in 1941. The new Foundation in London was renamed the Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art and Basil Taylor was persuaded to take on the directorship from rented premises at 38 Bury Street, St James's. lts first Board of Trustees consisted of Basil Taylor; the scholar/ connoisseur/ art dealer James Byam Shaw (1903 - 1992) of Colnaghi's; Sir Herbert Read (1893 - 1968), the writer and friend of Paul Mellon; and (as Chairman) Charles Whishaw (1909 - 2006), a lawyer and trustee of the Gulbenkian Foundation.

The first results of the Foundation's activities were a series of short 'supplements' which began publication in Apollo magazine in 1964, consisting of short scholarly notices about previously unpublished works of art. The first of these appeared some months before the first exhibition in England of Paul Mellon's collection which opened to the public at the Royal Academy on 12th December 1964. When the collection was shown at the Yale University Art Gallery in the following year a three-day conference was held (April 21 - 23) with the aim of bringing together the leading scholars in the field to debate the state of knowledge and to draw attention to those areas that were most in need of new research. Basil Taylor described the occasion as ‘a most useful, but perhaps a little discouraging occasion, as hour by hour we were being reminded how much we did not know, how much remained to be discovered.’

It is now all too easy to forget that in 1960s Britain there was still remarkably little confidence about the art of its past compared to that of mainland Europe. Denys Sutton (1917 - 1991), editor of Apollo magazine, even went as far as challenging his readers in an editorial in June 1967 entitled ‘Let’s Blow our Own Trumpet for a Change’ to stop being so diffident, and posing the question whether the French Impressionists could ‘rival Turner with his poetical blending of delicacy and strength’. He went on to note that ‘British art was neglected for years, except by a few enthusiasts, but, largely thanks to the omnificence of Mr Paul Mellon, it is marching ahead’.

Sutton's editorial coincided with the publication in 1967 of the Paul Mellon Foundation's first three books. Robert Raines's monograph on Marcellus Laroon, Roy Strong's Hans Holbein at the Court of Henry VIII and Oliver Millar's Zoffany and his Tribuna all received the kind of widespread, lengthy reviews and publicity in the national press that would now be inconceivable for academic books. The books were edited by Basil Taylor and were designed by a staff member, Paul Sharp, and many of the photographs reproduced were taken by the Foundation's photographer Douglas Smith. A few months later, in an article published in the Contemporary Review, Basil Taylor offered a progress report on the Foundation's activities to date and noted that although the primary aim of the Foundation was to advance the knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of British painting, sculpture and graphic arts through publications – ‘by increasing the authoritative literature of the subject’ - it was recognised at the start ‘that if such a programme of publishing was to have continuity, ambition and any intellectual drive, the study of British art itself would have to be nourished in other ways. As a contribution to that end’, Taylor wrote, ‘the Foundation has endowed two lectureships, one in British Medieval Art at the University of York and the other in Post-Medieval Art at the University of Leicester.’ ln addition to offering modest grants to individual scholars for research purposes, financial support for mounting exhibitions was an important part of the Foundation's brief, with exhibitions devoted to Bonington, Wheatley, Brooking, Mortimer, Laroon and Mercier, to name but a few, all receiving significant help.

Basil Taylor argued forcefully that, simply by virtue of its creation, the Paul Mellon Foundation asserted that British painting was worthy of intelligent consideration. He was however quick to point out that for the student of British art in 1967 ‘the very fundaments of knowledge are still missing’, noting that catalogues raisonnées of most of the greatest British painters such as Turner and Constable simply did not exist and that if ‘our writers had been as inadequately published and presented there would surely have been an outcry’. In this interim report Basil Taylor also drew attention to what was to prove to be the Foundation's nemesis, a proposed multi-volume Dictionary of British Artists. The Dictionary, in its planning stages since the Foundation's inception, was, as Taylor admitted, 'perhaps too ambitious for the present resources of British art scholarship. Time will tell'.

Indeed, the project eventually proved too ambitious, and the enormous estimated cost of the Dictionary was one of the prime reasons for the Foundation's demise in 1969. An indignant editorial entitled 'The Future of the Mellon Foundation' appeared in the Burlington Magazine in May 1970, after the Foundation's closure and the announcement that a newly constituted organisation, under the aegis of Yale University, named the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art had been established.

The Burlington editorial noted that at a meeting held in London on 9th December 1969 'to which a number of outside art historians were invited to give their advice, it transpired that the ten or twelve volumes projected would cost nearly £1,400,000' - an enormous sum for the proposed, rather overoptimistic print run of five thousand copies. This sum was way beyond the means of the newly established Centre: tighter financial controls under Yale's management meant that it was not prepared to countenance such extravagance.

By the time Basil Taylor resigned towards the end of 1968, the planning of the Yale Center for British Art, designed to house Paul Mellon's collection of British art, the gift of which to Yale was announced on 9th December 1966, was progressing apace and it was decided, in large part due to Jules Prown (b.1930), the Center's first director, that a London outpost would be highly desirable. It was also abundantly clear that the present setup was not running satisfactorily and that both Paul Mellon and Yale University would require significant changes if the organisation was to survive in any form. Basil Taylor's two assistants, Angus Stirling (b. 1933) and Colin Sorensen (1930 - 2001), took over in January 1969 as co-Directors, with the former in charge of administrative matters and the latter focused on publications. Charles Whishaw and James Byam Shaw continued as Trustees and were joined in February 1969 by Sir John Witt (1907 - 1982), a lawyer, and David Piper (1918-1990), Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, replacing Herbert Read, who had died. Jules Prown, as first director of the embryonic Yale Center for British Art, also became a Trustee. At this point Paul Mellon was concerned that the London Foundation had become an open-ended financial commitment, especially since the long-term costs of the proposed Dictionary were spiralling. Paul Mellon therefore asked Yale University if it would be prepared to take over the Foundation if he donated $5,000,000 for the purpose. In April 1969, Yale's President Kingman Brewster approved the idea as long as it did not involve any incremental expenditure of university funds. At a meeting of the Foundation's Trustees in October 1969 Jules Prown informed them that the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, successor to the Old Dominion Foundation, did not intend to continue annual funding but that Paul Mellon was considering endowing a new body under the auspices of Yale University. By the end of the year events had moved rapidly and on 1st December 1969 Paul Mellon and his lawyer Stoddard Stevens met with the Trustees in London and told them of his intention of endowing a Centre in London.

A conference also rook place on 9th December about the future of the Dictionary after which it was concluded that, despite its desirability, Yale would not be prepared to make a commitment to the project. Yale received the gift of $5,000,000 at the end of December 1969. It was envisaged that the new organisation would have substantially the same aims as those of the Foundation but that it would in due course become a sister institution to the Yale Center for British Art. In-house design of books would be discontinued in favour of a contractual arrangement with Yale University Press and it would no longer be involved with mounting exhibitions.

By the time the Foundation closed late in 1969 three more books had been published: Benedict Nicolson's Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter of Light; a beautiful facsimile of Richard Wilson's Italian Sketchbook edited by Denys Sutton; and Roy Strong's ground-breaking study of sixteenth-century painting, The English Icon. Mary Webster's monograph on Francis Wheatley appeared the following year under the Foundation's imprint, despite its demise. Many more books that were in preparation under the Foundation eventually, sometimes decades later, came to fruition under the auspices of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press.