Has anyone ever thought of writing a combined history of the
varying fortunes of Anglophilia and Anglophobia in America? What an interesting
story that would be! Owing to the snobberies and affectations that Anglophilia
has been known to inspire in this country, the subject obviously lends itself
to a good deal of comedy. Yet, owing to the sometimes fierce political
resentments that Anglophilia-real or imagined-has also been known to inspire,
it is a story with a darker side as well. It may be difficult for a younger
generation to believe such things, but in the early months of the Second World
War-when England was virtually alone in resisting Hitler’s conquest of
Europe-there were many vocal political groups in this country that regarded the
British Empire as a greater threat to America’s interests than either Nazi
Germany or the Soviet Union.
We’re not talking about a lunatic fringe, either, though
there was certainly some lunacy involved. Some of us are old enough to remember
a time when it was established editorial policy at Colonel Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune , for example, to deny
that New England, because of its alleged Anglophilia, was a legitimate part of
the United States. At the Trib ,
Boston and its environs, where I grew up, was considered little more than a
Fifth Column of the British Empire. This would have been news to the immigrants
from Italy and Portugal with whose children I went to school. But reality was never
the forte of dedicated Anglophobes like Col. McCormick. The only exceptions
were the Irish, of course, but the enormous political power they enjoyed in
Boston was itself a mockery of McCormick’s paranoid fantasy. He didn’t seem to
know who was actually running Boston in those days.
I have been thinking a lot about Anglophilia and Anglophobia
in America since visiting the current exhibition at the Yale Center for British
Art in New Haven. It is called The Paul
Mellon Bequest: Treasures of a Lifetime , and it inaugurates a rich and
varied season of exhibitions, lectures and other events, all of them related to
the history of British art, which the late Paul Mellon not only collected on a
grand scale, but for which he created the Yale Center for British Art, a museum
and research center, a quarter of a century ago.
The Center occupies a
splendid building, designed by the American architect Louis Kahn, on the Yale
campus, and thanks to Mellon’s largesse-which included, besides the building
and a handsome endowment, 1,500 works of art and some 2,000 rare books and
manuscripts-it is now the largest museum of its kind outside the U.K. Mellon’s
death in 1999 brought the Yale Center the final installment of its donation,
which contained many of the English sporting pictures and related books and
manuscripts that were a special interest of his. It is mainly this material
that is currently on view at the Yale Center in The Paul Mellon Bequest exhibition-160 paintings and 50 of the
Mellon was clearly the kind of dedicated Anglophile that
Col. McCormick would have regarded as a public enemy. God only knows what the
Colonel would have made of an institution like the Yale Center for British
Art-some sort of center of subversion, I suppose. Yet the fact is that Mellon’s
philanthropy was very much in the American grain.
In this case, it was also an impulse he inherited, along
with his fortune, from his father, Andrew W. Mellon, who once served as the
American ambassador in London. It was the elder Mellon who founded the National
Gallery of Art in Washington in the 1930′s, donating to it his own collection
of Old Master paintings. His model in that endeavor was the National Gallery in
London. In that connection, it is worth noting that some of the paintings the elder
Mellon bought for the new National Gallery were acquired from the Soviet Union,
when Stalin embarked on a program of selling masterpieces from the Russian
museums to finance his first Five-Year Plan.
It was to his English mother, however, that Paul Mellon owed
his keen interest in British art, culture and society. As his mismatched
parents were the subject of a scandalous divorce while Mellon was still a
child, he came to spend a good deal of his childhood and youth in England.
After graduating from Yale, he also studied at Cambridge University and made
many friends there. He clearly preferred England-and especially its beautiful
country and its equestrian sports-to Pittsburgh, where he was born. As Mellon
himself wrote in a memoir called Reflections
in a Silver Spoon (1992): “My interest in British art is part of my
fascination with British life and history. From childhood and from Cambridge
days I acquired a fondness for the English landscape and for the ever-changing
light … I grew to love English country life and country sports. I became a
lifelong devotee of fox-hunting and racing. All these interests converged to
make me ready to collect paintings, drawings, books and prints, wherever the
subject matter is related to English life in the 18th and early 19th
Yet the Bequest
exhibition, while favoring English sporting pictures and books, also gives us
glimpses of Mellon’s other interests. Among much else, there is a group of
small landscape paintings by John Constable and a fine Turner landscape of
Cambridge seen from the River Cam. Yet it is to the paintings of English
country life, and thus to paintings of hunting, shooting, fishing, riding and
the less glamorous subject of “the Working Horse,” that the Bequest exhibition is mainly devoted.
I have never been on a
horse myself, and my personal interest in hunting is less than minimal. Yet as
a subject for art, equestrian sport is one of the central themes of British
painting, and I have to confess that I found it enthralling in this exhibition.
The show itself is also far more various in its range of
experience than might have been expected. The masterpieces by George Stubbs are
here in all their horsy glory. But there are delightful surprises, too.
The painter Robert Burnard, born in Cornwall in 1800-to cite
one outstanding example-is an artist only recently identified. Mellon acquired
Burnard’s painting, John Gubbins Newton,
and His Sister Mary Newton (circa 1833)-which includes (need one say?) a
horse and a dog-without really knowing who had painted it. When it came to the
Yale Center, it was finally identified as the work of Burnard, who had
emigrated to Australia in 1840 and was never heard from again in London. It
turns out to be one of the star attractions of the exhibition.
All of this comes at a time when the study and exhibition of
British art in Britain itself is plagued with controversy. What used to be
called the Tate Gallery in London has been split into separate museums-Tate
Modern and Tate Britain, with neither of them showing any interest in
traditional scholarship and connoisseurship. The chronological presentation of
both the history of British art and the history of modern art has been
abandoned in favor of the so-called theme exhibitions, in which history is
scrambled to conform to trendy topics. And with the current Labour Party
government of Tony Blair condemning English tradition as racist and fox-hunting
as criminal, it looks more and more as if the Yale Center for British Art may
be one of the last museums where such tradition-and its art-may be studied
without political interference.
Who would have thought that in the 21st century, the
greatest Anglophobe of them all-the man most fiercely determined to stamp out
everything traditionally regarded as British-would be Her Majesty’s prime
minister? Well, as I say, a combined history of Anglophilia and Anglophobia
would make an interesting story.
The Paul Mellon
Bequest: Treasures of a Lifetime remains on view at the Yale Center for
British Art through April 29.
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