Yale’s Mellon Collection Brings Back Anglophilia

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

rarest books.

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

centuries.”

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.