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 Centre for Studies in British Art

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 partner institution to the Yale Center for British Art, which houses Paul Mellon's collection of British art. We are run by a Director of Studies, who reports annually to the Board of Governors, consisting of officers and faculty of Yale University. Our Advisory Council, comprised of twelve distinguished representatives from the British academic and museum community, meets twice a year to make recommendations on grants and fellowships to be awarded.

We were based at 20 Bloomsbury Square, London WC1, from our foundation in 1970 until 1996, when we moved to our present Grade I listed premises at No 16 Bedford Square, London WC1. In 2015 the Centre embarked on an ambitious expansion project, taking over the lease of 15 Bedford Square in order to offer an improved environment and increased space for our library and archives, our events programme, our Yale-in-London students and our staff. 

16 Bedford Square

Martine La Roche, 16 Bedford Square,

In May 1970, unhappy at the demise of the Paul Mellon Foundation, the editor of the Burlington Magazine, doubtless expressing the views of many British scholars who feared that the putative 'Golden Age' that the Foundation heralded might founder before it could even begin to flourish, predicted that the new Paul Mellon Centre, by then established with an endowment given to Yale by Paul Mellon, would 'have a tough time standing up to its American counterpart.' Since a new Director had yet to be appointed, it was hoped that such a figure would be someone of 'high standing and with a will of iron.' By a stroke of good fortune it transpired that in the summer of 1970 Professor Ellis Waterhouse was about to retire after eighteen years as Director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham and Jules Prown shrewdly persuaded him to take the helm of the new Centre until a longer-term successor could eventually be found. Waterhouse's international reputation immediately commanded respect in the London art world and he undoubtedly established the character of the new Centre, in its premises at 20 Bloomsbury Square, a building shared with Yale University Press's then very modest London operation.

In its early years the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, although no less ambitious in its aims than its predecessor, operated under much tighter financial control. In order to win the confidence of institutions in Britain it was decided that the Centre should be completely disassociated with the building up of the Mellon collection: when the collection was shown at the Royal Academy in the winter of 1964-65 headlines such as that in the Daily Telegraph on 11th December 1964 - 'MELLON SHOW AROUSES DELIGHT AND DISMAY' – reminded the British art establishment and the public just how many good British pictures had left the United Kingdom over the previous five years.

Although the Foundation had been active in building up an archive of black and white photographs of British paintings, drawings and engravings during its few brief years of existence, under the directorship of Waterhouse, who had an unrivalled knowledge of British art in both public and private collections, the new Centre made photography of works passing through the auction houses and those in private collections a high priority. From his early days as a young curator at the National Gallery in London and later as Director of both the National Gallery of Scotland (1949-52) and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham (1952-70), Waterhouse had always made a practice of establishing photographic archives and he recognised the vital importance of new photography to the art historian. Thanks to the excellent work of the photographer Douglas Smith (1920-2006), who was employed from 1964 successively by both the Foundation and the Centre until his retirement in 1996, this targeted approach, compared to the Witt Library's more comprehensive gathering of images, led to tens of thousands of works of art which might otherwise have remained unrecorded being photographed and catalogued in the Centre's archive.

Ellis Waterhouse was Director of the Centre for less than three years but in that short time, with the support of Jules Prown at Yale and a distinguished Advisory Council comprised of leading scholars and museum directors from the British art world, he rapidly managed to establish the Centre as a viable force and to dispel the unease which accompanied the Centre's foundation.

Any doubts that the Centre might not continue the Foundation's policy of supporting scholarly books were dispelled with the publication for the Centre by Yale University Press of Ronald Paulson's magisterial two-volume Hogarth, His Life, Art and Times in October 1971, on the day the Centre opened its new premises in Bloomsbury Square. This was the first of the Centre's books published under a new contractual arrangement with Yale University Press and the sheer scale of this study (when it was completed in the late-1960s it was planned as a three-volume work) made the Centre's ambitions abundantly clear. Since then a steady stream of important publications have appeared under the Paul Mellon Centre and Yale University Press's imprint and the publications programme was given real impetus in 1973 when John Nicoll (b.1944), a promising young publisher who was making a name for himself at Oxford University Press, was persuaded to join Yale University Press's London office, housed in the Paul Mellon Centre's premises, to handle production of its art books. In the following years the publication of catalogues raisonnés of Turner, Constable, Blake and Whistler all received substantial personal support from Paul Mellon, over and above the budgeted sums from the Centre's endowment income.

Since the turn of the new century further catalogues raisonnés of the work of Reynolds, Ramsay, Van Dyck, Sickert, Stubbs, Bonington, Holman Hunt, Madox Brown, Sargent, Beardsley and Wilson have been published and Hogarth, Romney and Gainsborough's portraits are all in preparation. These books have provided a solid base for a new generation of scholars of British art, and changing approaches to the discipline of art history are also reflected in the Centre's publication of many more discursive texts and books of essays. The Centre's support of architectural history should also be noted since the Paul Mellon Foundation had excluded architecture and the applied and decorative arts from its remit. Standard reference works such as the third and fourth editions of Howard Colvin's A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 have been published under the Centre's imprint and ground-breaking works such as Eileen Harris's The Genius of Robert Adam: His Interiors, John Cornforth's Early Georgian Interiors and Mark Girouard's Elizabethan Architecture have set the highest standards in both scholarship and in the sumptuous presentation of the material.

Ellis Waterhouse retired in 1973 and Christopher White (b.1930) was recruited as the second Director of Studies from his post as Curator of Graphic Arts at the National Gallery in Washington. Christopher White had considerable experience in the muse um world and the art trade, having worked for eleven years in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum before joining the dealers Colnaghi in 1965. Although a specialist in Dutch rather than British art, White was a distinguished and respected figure and during his twelve years as Director of Studies at the Centre he forged closer links with the sister institution, the Yale Center for British Art, after it opened in April 1977. One of his innovations was the introduction of the Yale in London programme in the summer of 1977. Although initially a summer course, it was extended in 1981 to two full semesters that provided study abroad opportunities for Yale and occasionally undergraduates from other American universities who were interested in pursuing a series of courses offered under the umbrella of what was then Yale's British Studies department. This gave the Paul Mellon Centre a definable role in Yale's undergraduate life, and daily life at 20 Bloomsbury Square was certainly enhanced by the presence of groups of lively and intelligent Yale undergraduates, whose experience of studying British art during a term in London enabled them to make greater use of Paul Mellon’s collections at the Yale Center for British Art on their return to New Haven. Increasingly, too, the London Centre was becoming a base for the stream of Yale graduate students who wished to pursue advanced research in historic British art in London. The presence of a London base, whence introductions to the London art world could be made, has undoubtedly provided a vital point of entry for students at what can sometimes be an isolated stage in their professional lives.

When Christopher White was appointed Director of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford in 1985, he was succeeded by the Deputy Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Professor Michael Kitson (1926-1998). Although not a prolific author, Michael Kitson was a hugely influential figure within academic circles and he brought a wealth of experience and authority to the Paul Mellon Centre. The seven years of his directorship witnessed a greater engagement with history of art departments in the universities and also with national museums with whom closer academic links were forged.

Kitson's successor, Brian Allen, began his career at the Centre in 1976 as Assistant Director and Librarian and departed as Director of Studies in 2012. During this period the Centre's funds grew significantly as a result of Yale University's careful investment of Paul Mellon's endowment. As a result, not only was the Centre able to move in 1996 to its larger premises at Number 16 Bedford Square but the modest sum available in grant aid from the Centre before 1998 has grown very considerably resulting in a hugely beneficial impact in the field. The Centre is now able to support the publication of, on average, twelve new titles each year and, through its grants programme, it is able to offer significant support to other academic publishers for scholarly books on British art.

Mark Hallett was appointed as Director of Studies in October 2012.