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January 2016

Vol. 158 / No. 1354

British art and the Paul Mellon Centre

THIS IS A buoyant moment for the study and critical appreciation of British art. An ambitious new Director is now in place at Tate Britain, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London has significantly expanded its programme of activities. Not only is the PMC, as it is now identifies itself in its new thrice-yearly brochure, intent on setting new intellectual and creative benchmarks with its British Art Studies, an online journal launched last November in association with its parent organisation in America, the Yale Center for British Art at New Haven, but it has also expanded its foothold in London. By taking a lease on the house next door, 15 Bedford Square, it has doubled in size. Both houses have been completely refurbished, and the decision to knock through the divide at four levels has created an easy flow of movement between the two buildings.


What made this expansion necessary was a steady increase, over the last three years, in the Centre’s research events. Lectures, seminars, conferences and study days have produced visitor numbers that have put pressure on no.16, despite the airy, elegant and generous proportions of the house in this, one of London’s most famous squares. Under the new arrangement the Centre benefits from a first-floor Lecture Room as well as a ground-floor Seminar Room, both furnished with the latest visual technology. Even so, tickets for a study day on Walter Sickert, held last December, sold out within a week, which suggests that, owing to the high standards associated with the Centre, demand continues to exceed supply. Meanwhile it continues to give vital support to studies in British art through its generous grant-giving activities and its publications.


Just how much this hub of activity has contributed, over the years, to the public perception of British art requires us to look back to its origins. It began quietly, as the Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, in 1963, the same year in which Prime Minister Harold Wilson made his famous speech about the ‘white heat of technology’. The interests of the intellectual climate at that time did little to shift the neglect that surrounded British art, associated as it was in the minds of many with the dim corridors of country houses, then regarded as outdated symbols of embarrassing privilege. Yet in 1959, Paul Mellon, aged fifty-two, had begun to collect British art in earnest. As the son of Andrew Mellon, the investment banker who became one of the four wealthiest men in America, he had disappointed his father by showing no interest in banking. But his passionate interest in British life, light and landscape, history and country sports, helped make him such a fanatical collector of British paintings, drawings, prints and rare books that, in a relatively short time, he formed the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom. The catalyst behind his decision to play a more public role in this field appears to have been Martin Hardie’s collection of English watercolours. This came up for sale in 1961, and, given its many interesting items, Paul Mellon was advised to buy it en bloc. Simultaneously he learnt that Martin Hardie, a former Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the Victoria & Albert Museum had, in his retirement, written a book on the subject of English watercolour drawing which his widow wanted to publish. The lengthy manuscript (eventually published in three volumes) needed revising, and in the course of protracted discussions about the text, Paul Mellon not only agreed to underwrite it, but also began to wonder what other writings on British art were in need of a publisher. Thus was conceived a venture aimed at promoting a wider understanding and knowledge of British art. Mellon set up a non-profit charitable trust, with its own board of trustees, and its main intent was to publish ‘Studies in British Art’.


Although the Foundation was not entirely successful, it produced a run of books, and went on doing so after it was reborn in 1970 as the official offshoot in London of the Yale Center for British Art, which came into being when, in 1966, Paul Mellon promised Yale University his collection of British art and books, together with money for a new building and the necessary endowment fund. Thus, from 1965 up to the present day, financial support from Paul Mellon has underpinned the publication of some three-hundred books, the majority of them produced in association with Yale University Press. Among them are enduring building blocks in the scholarship on British art, including weighty two-volume studies: Benedict Nicolson’s Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light (1968); Ronald Paulson’s Hogarth: His Life, Times and Art (1971); Martin Butlin’s The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (1978); Butlin and Evelyn Joll’s The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner (1964); and Graham Reynolds’s The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable (1984) and his The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable (1996), while catalogue raisonnés include Judy Egerton’s of George Stubbs and Alex Kidson’s of George Romney’s paintings. Recent additions to this list are the Pevsner Guides, as the updated revisions of Pevsner’s Buildings of England series are now called. But each and every item on this list testifies to Paul Mellon’s hugely influential legacy, which has shown no sign of lessening since his death in 1998. If we also take into account publication grants awarded by the Paul Mellon Centre to other publishers engaged with British art, then Mellon’s reach extends still further, and has given vital encouragement, for instance, to Lund Humphries, which now leads in the field of twentieth-century British art.


An interactive debate opens the PMC’s first edition of British Art Studies. Its theme is nicely ironic: ‘There’s no such thing as British Art’. Behind this lies great confidence in the seriousness with which British art is now discussed. It is widely recognised that British art has gained much from artists from abroad who have settled in or visited this country, while at other times there has been a fertile return to native traditions. Many will welcome the intention of Alex Farquharson, Tate Britain’s new director, to show the many ‘histories’ within British art. It is frequently observed that the terms ‘British’ and ‘English’ are often conflated, and definitions of Britishness, narrowly conceived. If the diversity within the United Kingdom is to be recognised, then a display of Welsh art, from the eighteenth century to the present day, would be welcome, as would, for some people, labels and wall panels in Welsh. It is also a timely moment for fresh interpretations of some aspects of the historic collection at Tate Britain, and, perhaps too, for the placing of British art more firmly in an international context.